The Wartime Sisters
Lynda Cohen Loigman’s The Wartime Sisters checked a couple of my book-catnip boxes. As you’ll know if you’ve followed my reviews for any length of time, I absolutely adore books that take place during the Second World War. I also really enjoy reading about the close but messy relationships shared between sisters. I don’t have a sister, so perhaps I’ve romanticized the whole sisterly experience in my mind, but we’re all entitled to our fantasies, right?
Millie and Ruth have never been close. Ruth is the oldest, and her parents don’t seem to pay her much attention at all. She’s intelligent and practical, but her younger sister Millie’s beauty seems to garner her much more parental praise, and while the sisters are growing up in Brooklyn, Ruth constantly hears how Millie is destined for greatness. Their mother is certain that a handsome and extremely wealthy man will one day take notice of Millie and sweep her away from her family’s humble home. As you might imagine, Ruth quickly tires of Millie’s praises being sung almost constantly, and she begins to resent her younger sister.
For her part, Millie yearns to be seen as more than the sister with the pretty face. No one seems to think she’s good for anything but making an advantageous marriage, and they never stop to think she might want something more out of life. She desperately wishes she could be close to Ruth, but her sister rebuffs her every attempt to reach out, and so, Millie seeks comfort in the arms of a most undesirable man.
We then jump in time to 1942. Ruth is married and lives with her husband and children on a military base in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her husband is an officer, so Ruth leads a life of privilege. She’s well-liked by the other women on the base, and she’s finally begun to think people have realized her worth.
Things aren’t going nearly so well for Millie. Her husband has gone off to war, and she and her young son are struggling to make ends meet. The reader is given the impression that Millie’s marriage is not a happy one, but we don’t learn the truth until much later on in the story.
Ruth and Millie have been estranged for the past several years, so no one is more surprised than Millie when Ruth reaches out and invites Millie and her son to move in with her family. At first, Millie is hesitant, but the promise of a job that pays a decent wage plus the opportunity to hopefully mend fences with her sister compels her to move from Brooklyn to the Springfield army base. Once there, she begins working as a Soldier of Production in the armory, a job that keeps her quite busy and also brings her to the attention of some of the most powerful men on the base.
Things between the sisters are strained, but both seem determined to work out their differences, and when Ruth’s husband is called to fight overseas, the women finally begin to grow close. Unfortunately, Millie is keeping a dangerous secret from her sister, a secret that threatens to drive a wedge between them once again if it comes to light. And then a shadowy figure from their past shows up in Springfield, making it necessary for both Millie and Ruth to make some very difficult decisions.
The Wartime Sisters is set during the World War II, but it reads much more like women’s fiction than historical fiction. Sure, we get to experience life on a military base, and I learned quite a bit about the work women were hired on to do during the conflict, but the relationship between the sisters takes center stage. The setting felt like more of a bonus than anything else. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I enjoyed watching Ruth and Millie figure out who they are both separately and together, but readers who are looking for a story brimming with historical detail might be disappointed.
I feel like I’ve read about characters like Millie and Ruth in a hundred other books, and this is honestly what kept me from giving this book a higher grade. They’re both easy enough to relate to, but neither woman possesses any traits that make her stand out from the crowd of fictional heroines. I understood the problematic nature of their relationship, and I was definitely routing for them to set their differences aside, but I would have liked certain aspects of the plot to have taken a couple of different turns.
As for Millie’s secret, the author did a great job keeping me guessing and I had no idea what it was until about halfway through the book. Of course, once I figured things out, I realized she had dropped a few clues earlier on in the story, so some readers may jump to the correct conclusions a bit quicker than I did.
On the whole, The Wartime Sisters is an enjoyable, if predictable, novel best suited to readers who are most interested in seeing Millie and Ruth work out their many differences. I’m not sorry I picked it up, but neither does it earn a place on my keeper shelf.