Edda Latimer sits in the midst of a party full of chattering women, when she spots “a polished black wedge with vibrating tongue…followed by a polished black body as thick as a woman’s arm” slither out of a hole in the wooden floor. She draws in her breath, lifts herself and the chair a few inches, and brings down “the left front leg on the middle of the snake’s head.”
The snake’s seven-foot-long body whips, pounds, and crashes “against her, dealing her blows more savage and punishing than a man’s fist,” as her sister Kitty grabs a tomahawk and slams it twice into the snake, killing it.
“Edda and Grace, Tufts and Kitty. Two sets of twins, the daughters of the Reverend Thomas Latimer, Rector of St. Mark’s Church of England in the Shire & City of Corunda, New South Wales,” writes Colleen McCullough in the opening lines of Bittersweet, her latest novel and “first romantic saga” since 1977’s The Thorn Birds.
Set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Bittersweet follows the four sisters as they leave their father’s rectory and go to nursing school, though Edda really wants to be a doctor, Grace only wants to get married, Tufts refuses to marry anyone, and tomahawk-wielding Kitty, who is renowned for her beauty, wants to be known for anything but her beauty.
There’s gossip in Bittersweet, love at first sight, love that comes only after it’s pressured into being and illicit sex. There are marriages, babies, deaths, depression—both economic and emotional—and their father, the rector, who believes “a man should be older than his wife, otherwise women’s natural maturity gives them an unfair advantage in marriage.” That’s a rather ironic line for McCullough to write, considering that she’s married to a man who is 13 years her junior.
“I was just recounting the attitude of the time,” the author defends. She simply met the right man for her, who happened to be 13 years younger. “They call it toy boys and all that kind of rubbish, but if you’re honest with yourself you’ll say that most men are hopeless anyway.”
With humorous retorts like that, perhaps it’s not surprising that in Bittersweet, McCullough relates most to Tufts. “I like her practical streak, her sensible attitude. She’s not a highly sexed woman, and she knows that’s the most comfortable way to be.”
Her least favorite is Grace, the one who wants to get married and the one McCullough calls “the moaner.” “I think bad things happen to her, because she was always discontented.”
Bittersweet is a politically and socially progressive novel reflecting women fighting for the right to be who they want to be, with the education they want, the career they want, with freedom for all—male and female—to fall in love with whom they want and live in the type of relationship they want. There’s also the pursuit of quality health care for everyone, including mental health care. And finally there’s the Great Depression, as one political wing believes in cutting back spending and the other believes in spending more to create jobs. In other words, it’s a novel about today.
McCullough didn’t realize she was writing such a political book. She was just telling a story of the late 1920s and early 1930s, she explains, but admits that many people believe history goes in cycles. “And maybe it’s springing round to that kind of world again. I’m a tremendous feminist. And I paint rather specific portraits of how women are downtrodden and have been in the past. It never seems to me that we get any better treated as time goes on. I think that there’s an inbuilt—maybe it’s genetic—part of man that cannot take women seriously and that has contempt for women. And everything I write in one way or another will have something about that in it.”
She mentions her Master of Rome series, for which she researched Roman, Greek and near Eastern history and their attitudes toward women. “And it seems to be that nothing very much changes in centuries, let alone decades.” She then adds, “In 2014, on Norfolk Island,” which is the South Pacific island where she lives, “there are more deserted brides and single mothers than you can knock a stick at. Men don’t want that responsibility. They hate parting with their money. It’s terrible,” she says. “It is about today as well. It’s just that today is like 1928.”
So how do we change today?
“Cut the pricks off men?” she says.
In truth, I’m not sure she said that as a question. But because I don’t want to see McCullough in jail, I hope there’s a question mark at the end of her sentence. What I do know is that while Tufts may be her favorite character in Bittersweet, there’s a lot of snake-killing Edda and Kitty in Colleen McCullough.
Suzy Spencer is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest work is the memoir Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality.