The Sisters of Summit Avenue
The Sisters of Summit Avenue is one of those stories filled with intergenerational bile that combines interesting ideas and character moments with impossible coincidences and melodramatic twists.
Ruth and June have been caught up in a rivalry that’s lasted for the majority of their shared lifespan. Now, as the Depression closes in, they’re reuniting at Ruth’s house, and must hash out the long-simmering conflict between them.
June is a go-get-‘em type harboring insecurity in her heart. Trapped by her own desire to be a ‘somebody’, her life instead has become a hollow morass. Looking at her, no one would be able to note her struggles; blonde, popular and married to a shallow, status-obsessed doctor, she’s become a reliable worker as a recipe tester for the Betty Crocker Kitchens. She even poses as Betty herself during public appearances, delivering tips for easy living to housewives who think she’s the real thing, all the while dreaming of taking up the art career she’d abandoned and the children she is unable to have.
Ruth has become a housewife, raising four daughters singlehandedly and running the farm as her husband John languishes in bed due to a sleeping sickness – encephalitis lethargic – which has swept the country and left him immobilized. Boiling with frustrated desires and ambitions and at her reduced circumstances, she develops a crush on her healthy young farmhand, Nick.
This horrifies their mother Dorothy, now living with Ruth after the death of her husband, who can only see the disaster that led to an unsatisfactory marriage to the girls’ father being replicated in Ruth’s flirtation with Nick. Dorothy, too, yearns: never really approving of William or wanting his love, she spends her days longing for her first love, the rich man she grew up with as her mother cleaned his house, who impregnated and abandoned her and whom she may never have due to scandalous reasons.
All her life, Ruth has borne violent resentment for June’s easy life. In turn. June envies Ruth’s family, and especially her marriage to John, whom June had loved first but lost to Ruth. As the visit bears down on them all, a surprise miracle might bring John back to the everyday world – and force both sisters and their mother to deal with the disappointment that’s soured their lives.
The Sisters of Summit Avenue is one of those books that’s got some fascinating plot bites but to learn more about them you must spend time with the characters, and that can be a difficult thing to do, especially bitterly angry Ruth .
On the positive side of things, the book’s sense of history takes us to unique places that Depression-era novels rarely go. I loved the little peek into the chirpy world of Betty Crocker, of the Bettys who would go out and spread happiness person by person. I also found all of the material about John’s encephalitis lethargic utterly fascinating. I didn’t know much about the illness before, and seeing the process of it affect Ruth and her children made them more sympathetic.
Ruth and June are a study in watching out what you wish for. June wants to be somebody important and becomes one, but is bitter she didn’t marry the farmer she rejected. Ruth wanted what June wanted, to flip her the metaphorical bird, and got the boy she loved but was sentenced to a life of drudgery and eventually loneliness, as the man she hitched her wagon to still loved her sister, and eventually becomes as remote as the moon. June’s reserved numbness is interesting, but Ruth was so bitter, so furious that it was hard to enjoy staying within her point of view. Her fury is understandable, but her point of view so negative that it’s hard to see her as rounded out or sympathetic.
Dorothy’s story carries most of The Sisters of Summit Avenue’s melodrama. Beginning in a way that feels realistic for the level of longing she has in her heart, it takes a swift turn off the beaten path and suddenly we’re dealing with…well, I won’t spoil it, but it’s over the top for a story that, for over half of its page-count, is very realistic. The book then tries to use that plot point to explore the cruelties of mental institutions for children in the thirties, which is successful and affecting but not given enough space to breathe.
It’s the end of The Sisters of Summit Avenue that refuses to work, using huge coincidences to effect an overly neat conclusion. This leads into an epilogue which settles things for June but feels skimpy and raw in Ruth’s case. I’m giving the novel a mid-grade rating to correspond with my mixed feelings, but for some readers the uniqueness of its setting might just win out.
Note: TW for surprise incest.