After over 30 years, Colleen McCullough has written another big Australian saga that shows she’s in top storytelling form. However, despite the similarity in genre, Bittersweet is significantly, and deliberately, different from the mega-selling The Thorn Birds. It covers a narrower timespan, namely 1924 through the early Thirties, and celebrates women’s growing prominence in the workforce and the resilient ties between sisters.
The beautiful, intelligent Latimer girls – Edda and Grace, Tufts and Kitty – are two sets of identical twins born of the same father but different mothers. To achieve their personal ambitions, and to let fragile Kitty escape from her dreadful mother’s suffocating favoritism, they sign up to train at the hospital in Corunda, their small city in rural New South Wales. Their working and living conditions are atrocious at first, and as the initial crop of prospective “new style” registered nurses, they’re resented by others who don’t have their privileged status or education. Their unpretentious attitudes and work ethic soon win over their doubters. The women are more dissimilar than alike temperament-wise, and this becomes more apparent as men enter their orbit and disrupt their exceptional closeness.
Their story is full of personality and verve even when McCullough is relating pure history, such as the circumstances leading to Australia’s downward slide into the Great Depression. The background details on medical techniques and even hospital administration prove to be fascinating, but the focus stays personal. Each woman’s true character manifests itself as the years pass, their ties to one another frequently affecting their relationships with the prideful men who interact with them, love them, and sometimes get in their way. Maybe to enhance the drama, the characters make some surprisingly impulsive decisions. The plot is constantly entertaining, and the warm and chatty style makes the novel read like a good gossip with old friends.