Latest review: The Sisters of Summit Avenue by Lynn Cullen

By Ekta R. Garg

Release date: September 10, 2019

Genre: Historical women’s fiction

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

A pair of sisters who share a troubled relationship must face what’s at the heart of their conflict. With spouses and their mother complicating matters, they have difficult choices to make. Author Lynn Cullen tries to intrigue readers with an unusual setting but fails to offer a solid plot in the uninspiring novel The Sisters of Summit Avenue.

In Minneapolis in 1934, June Whiteleather seems to have the perfect life. Despite the ongoing Depression, she works as a Betty—one of the women in the Betty Crocker test kitchen who maintains the brand of the company. June grew up poor, but no one in the kitchen would ever suspect it. How could they, when she’s their go-to Betty for advice on how to throw the most elegant brunch and maintain a façade of a high-class life? Her physician husband earns enough for June to live that life in truth, so it only makes sense that she be deemed the expert.

June enjoys the respect and deference of the other Bettys, but she aches to have children. She and Richard have been unable to do so, and it’s begun driving them apart. In truth, June was never fully Richard’s to begin with. Her heart went to John a long time ago, and for a time John reciprocated her love. In the end, however, John went to her little sister, Ruth.

On the Michigan-Indiana state line, Ruth is flat out exhausted. For the last eight years, she’s run the family farm by herself while keeping track of her four children and trying to make ends meet. When she and John first got married, life seemed quaint and doable. Ever since the “sleeping sickness” banished him to his bed, however, Ruth’s been doing the heavy lifting—most of the time literally.

The farmhand, Nick, provides a pleasant distraction from time to time, but Ruth still finds herself unhappy. Everything wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. June’s living the good life three states away, and Ruth burns with jealousy for every fancy thing June owns. It doesn’t matter that June sends her entire paycheck to Ruth to help with expenses, and even the satisfaction of winning John has worn off. Ruth wants a different life, but no offers seem to be forthcoming.

The girls’ mother, Dorothy, lives with Ruth and does her share to help with the kids, but Dorothy is worried about her younger daughter’s discontent and the choices she’s making because of it. In a moment of desperation, she calls June and begs her to come visit. Ruth really wants her there, she says. To Ruth, Dorothy makes it sound like June’s been dying to see the family. When the sisters come face to face, old wounds break open and they’re forced to deal with the betrayal and misunderstandings that have kept them apart all these years.

Author Lynn Cullen takes readers to the heart of the country and the Great Depression, bringing to life the desperation of those years. She offers the perfect juxtaposition of the fabricated life the Bettys present to Betty Crocker’s fans while millions of people across the country are struggling to eat. Ruth’s frustration and weariness with her circumstances ring true as do June’s disenchantment with her charmed life.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from too much of the sisters’ internal conflict. Readers will get pages and pages of details on how Ruth spent most of her life envying her older sister and how that envy is misplaced. Dorothy, too, has her own dark secrets, and while they may bring shock value to the story, they don’t help the sisters or the plot in any significant way. Cullen brings it all to a rushed ending that acts like a consolation and breaks character for almost all involved, a hurried attempt to wrap up the story with a neat bow that includes the title street (not mentioned in any great significance anywhere else in the book.)

Those interested in a look at an interesting facet of the early days of one of America’s most iconic brands might find those portions of the novel interesting. The portions on the sleeping sickness, too (a medical mystery to this day,) provide interesting fodder. Otherwise, readers will want to pass this one up. I recommend they Bypass The Sisters of Summit Avenue.

Newest review: Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

By Ekta R. Garg

June 12, 2019

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: June 11, 2019

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

Two sisters face tragedies and challenges through the decades. Along the way, they will encounter the trials unique to women and learn to come to terms with how gender plays into their personal narratives. Author Jennifer Weiner gives her characters free rein, to the detriment of the plot, in her overly long novel Mrs. Everything.

It’s the 1950s, and Jo and Bethie Kaufman have just moved into a new house in a Detroit suburb. Jo hopes the change will distract her mother from all the rules. There seem to be so many of them, and Jo is sick of every single one. She can’t seem to sit quietly enough or wear the right clothes or do anything “ladylike,” the way Bethie can.

Bethie is the exact opposite of her big sister. Where Jo favors jeans and protest marches, Bethie devours fashion magazines and wants nothing more than a cute date for Saturday night. She possesses a clear picture of her future: a mother and wife, like her own mother.

When the girls’ father dies from a heart attack, however, their lives unspool in a different direction. Their mother gets a job in a department store, working long hours to pay the bills, and leaving Jo and Bethie to fend for themselves at home. The increased freedom means more chances for the girls to explore, but that exploration often leads to heartache.

Before either of them know it, Jo is the one married and settling down and Bethie has taken up the clarion call to save the earth and fight discrimination. Both sisters find that the compromises they made, sometimes on the most personal issues, lead them into unexplored territory. They lose and find one another several times over as they each explore the meaning of womanhood: how to define it, how to live by it, and, in some cases, how to fly in the very face of it.

Author Jennifer Weiner takes readers on a journey that spans decades. While the intention is admirable, the end result is a book that feels much longer than it needs to be. From their early childhood until a tragic end for one of the sisters, the novel digs into every major obstacle a woman could possibly face.

Therein lies its biggest flaw. A book that many will hail as fit for the current times, Mrs. Everything wants so much to deliver the message of empowerment. In order to do so, the story drags Jo and Bethie through rape, molestation, unwanted pregnancy, infidelity, broken hearts, discrimination based on gender, race, and sexual orientation, homelessness, sexual harassment in the workplace, and unfulfilled dreams. One of the sisters even experiences the betrayal of a best friend. If the title references all of the roles a woman tries to fill, it also implies all the bad its characters experience.

Weiner takes her time developing the girls’ individual stories—sometimes in excruciating detail—but the plot rushes through the challenges that the next generation faces. Jo shakes her head at her inability to help one of her own daughters, but that daughter’s angst in life is never fully explained. The jarring shift of approach will make readers feel like the end got shoehorned into the rest of the book.

Inconsistencies may also confuse readers. At one point, Bethie, looking back on her life, accuses Jo of not helping her through a difficult situation early in the book, when Jo was the one she turned to during that time. Jo was the one who stood up for Bethie and gave her the courage to face another day. Bethie’s accusations feel forced, as if she needed a reason to estrange herself from Jo to serve the story’s next section.

Graphic sexual scenes may turn off some readers, and others may find it a challenge to stick with the bulky book because of its length. I recommend readers Bypass Mrs. Everything.