Available now for release this fall, Lynn Cullen’s The Sisters of Summit Avenue is a story for those who like suspense-filled historical novels. Set in the 1920s and ‘30s, Dorothy is the daughter of a butler and housekeeper for the Lambs, a well-to-do family, not unlike the Granthams of Downton Abbey. She has two daughters, June and Ruth. They fiercely love one another, but the youngest, Ruth, sees June as her rival all the same. A great divide occurs between the sisters. This is a book that has a main mystery and a secondary mystery to solve for the reader. Cullen moves back and forth through the Roaring ‘20s into the Great Depression, ending in 1950. The editor called this a “heartfelt tribute to mothers, daughters, and sisters everywhere.”
What worked for me:
- The author-reader contract truly started for me when I read Dorothy’s harrowing tale about escaping with her baby. She told her tale to Ruth’s husband, John, we learn later. He was speechless and motionless from contracting encephalitis lethargic, the sleeping sickness. I was drawn in by the heart-pounding start as she slipped away from somewhere sinister with the baby. She was met by William Dowdy in the rain that day and I was worried for her, not knowing if she would be caught.
- The theatre of my mind also was triggered as a read about the 1920s and ‘30s, the time when my grandparents were growing up. I had read the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and thought the author was tipping her hat to those two authors. I started a Pinterest board about ideas found while reading. I researched Black Blizzards; Encephalitis Lethargica (Think of the movie with Robin Williams: “Awakenings”); Bes-Ben hats; flapper hairstyles; the Great Depression; Betty Crocker; and state schools for “feeble-minded children.”
- Having a sister, I could relate to the bond they shared that held despite the fallen state of their personal lives. Since they were children Ruth had seen her relationship to her sister as one of competition. But both sisters were protective of each other in their own ways. They knew their mother was “odd.” They just didn’t know her life of sacrifice. They didn’t have the knowledge about her cruel beginnings to explain why she was so secretive and lived like a hermit.
- I was on the hook to find out what Ruth had done to damage the relationship between her sister and her. I cared about these characters. I wanted to know what happened before both sisters were married, before Ruth became a mother and June became “Betty Crocker.” How did June meet Richard Whiteleather? All was revealed with a bittersweet/satisfying conclusion.
Problem areas for me:
- I was unclear what the emergency was that brought June to Ruth and John’s farm in Indiana-Michigan. Ruth’s animosity toward her sister was evident. Was it John’s illness? No. He’d been ill 8 years so far without June showing up at the farm. Did their father recently die? No. I had to go back to the beginning. Dorothy told June that Ruth wanted her there. She arranged the meeting, according to Richard who traveled with June. I think it would have been better to say Richard had some treatments in mind for John’s sleeping sickness. I did expect Dorothy to tell her story to the sisters.
- I took note of the times I felt like I was losing interest, bogged down in the time period, its people and scenes. In Part One, I wrote: “Some sentences have too much filler between subject and verb. Too much detail about June’s job with Betty Crocker and the ladies identified by first name, hometown.” While I did enjoy learning about the beginnings of Betty Crocker and what Minneapolis was like in the 1930s, I felt too much detail intruded on the storyline. I flipped forward to see where I was going next.
- I like more of a linear approach if I’m to travel back in flashbacks. I needed to hear the whole story behind Ruth and June’s falling out, which I think started in Part 3. The story of June and Ruth in the 1920s began when June and Richard arrived at the farm. That was the trigger. When June is at the door to where John lies, Ruth flashed back to when she met John, then June’s beau. I think the story of the sisters and their beaus would have been easier to follow had it taken a step-by-step progression before returning to present-day 1934 (without any sooner returns to 1934 in our time-travelin’ Roadster!) Now, I did think of Stewart, the time-traveler of “Kate and Leopold.” He said time is a pretzel – “a beautiful 4D pretzel of kismetic inevitability.”
Thank you to Lynn Cullen and Simon and Schuster for this uncorrected proof to read and review. Not to give away too much, but I was satisfied with the ending. When one of the mysterious men riding around the farm was revealed, I had all sorts of ideas about how that would play out and wasn’t disappointed. “The Sisters of Summit Avenue” is expected to release Sept. 10, 2019. Other works by Cullen include “Mrs. Poe” and “Twain’s End.” For more information about Lynn Cullen and this novel, go to http://lynncullen.com/