The Sisters of Summit Avenue

Written by Lynn Cullen
Review by Hilary Daninhirsch

Sibling rivalry and its consequences are at the heart of this gripping character-driven novel set in the Midwest during the Depression era.

Even as children, Ruth and June had never been close. June was the beauty, while Ruth was the practical one. June always attracted men, while Ruth was less popular. Ruth ends up marrying June’s former love interest, John, which further serves to isolate the sisters. Ruth moves to a farm to raise her four children with John and has a hardscrabble life; when John is affected by the mysterious sleeping sickness and is an invalid for years, Ruth’s life becomes even more complicated. In the meantime, June is married to a well-off doctor and lives in a large house in Minnesota, though they have not been blessed with children. June works as a “Betty” for Betty Crocker, and though she has a job and a secure future, she is unhappy.

For most of their lives, including the present day, both women resent each other, each believing that the other is living a better life. Dorothy, their mother, is responsible for bringing the sisters together again after years of being partially estranged. Dorothy is keeping secrets from her daughters, and her backstory is interwoven into the pages.

The author deftly explores the complexity of sister relationships, and though all the women in the book are flawed, and sometimes frustrating, ultimately they are sympathetic characters who are trying to navigate what life has thrown at them. One of the most enjoyable parts of the book is the behind-the-scenes glimpse into the Betty Crocker machine and how that company made an impact on the lives of women. Another fascinating element is the sleeping sickness storyline. The novel has depth and heart, and while the storyline is somewhat bleak, it is highly readable.