Published by St. Martin's Press on January 22, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
THE WARTIME SISTERS REVIEW
Set against the backdrop of World War II, Lynda Cohen Loigman’s The Wartime Sisters is an emotionally charged story about two sisters who have a very complicated relationship filled with resentment and secrets. Older sister Ruth is the smart one, brilliant even, but somehow ends up always taking a back seat to her younger sister, Millie, who with her auburn curls and bright blue eyes, is the apple of everyone’s eye. Ruth loves her sister but can’t wait to move out and be on her own and out of the shadows. She eventually marries a young man who is an officer in the Army and moves to Springfield, Massachusetts. Ruth is enjoying her new life immensely until she gets word that Millie’s own husband, a soldier, has been killed, and Millie has nowhere to go, especially since Millie and Ruth’s parents are since deceased. Reluctantly, Ruth extends the offer to Millie to come and live with her at the armory in Springfield.
Their first meeting after so many years is filled with tension and awkwardness, and it feels as though it’s only a matter of time before Ruth finds herself in Millie’s shadow all over again. The tension continues to mount when it becomes clear that each sister is keeping something from the other. Will their relationship be able to withstand the strain when someone from their past unexpectedly reemerges threatening to spill their secrets and shatter their lives?
The Wartime Sisters is very much a character driven story, and as such, I was glad that I found both sisters to be characters that I was sympathetic to. It was easy to feel sympathetic towards Ruth because she spent so much of her life living in the shadow of her beautiful sister. Nothing Ruth ever did could compete with how everyone was so obsessed with Millie’s extraordinary good looks. Boys who came calling for Ruth found themselves attracted to Millie instead. In many ways, the girls’ mother was responsible for much of the ensuing resentment between Ruth and Millie. For example, when she was deciding who to give the good family heirloom jewelry to, in her mind, Millie, even though she was the youngest, was the obvious choice because of course she would marry into a rich family and have ample opportunities to wear and show off such jewelry. How can you not feel bad for Ruth when her own mother acts like that?
On the flip side though, it’s equally easy to feel sympathetic toward Millie. She’s a delightful girl and a devoted younger sister, and she can’t help how she looks or how people react to how she looks. She’s in a lose-lose situation because she’s constantly incurring Ruth’s wrath over these things she can’t control. And even though everyone around her treats her like she’s the golden child because of her looks, Millie feels that she can never measure up to Ruth because Ruth is just so smart and ambitious. Millie feels inadequate compared to her sister. I actually felt horrible for both sisters because they should have been there for each other, not driven apart by all of these unimportant things.
If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you know I love stories that feature dual timelines. The Wartime Sisters is split between two locations and two timelines. One is set in the 1930’s in Brooklyn, New York where the two sisters grew up together, while the other is set in early 1940’s in Springfield, Massachusetts at the armory where both sisters end up living and working.
I really liked this use of the dual timelines to show the origins of the resentment between the sisters and how those origins have continued to shape their lives and their interactions with one another over the years. When Millie first arrives at the armory in 1942, for example, Ruth realizes that because she has been avoiding her sister as much as possible over the years, she barely knows her own nephew, Millie’s young son, Michael. The author also very effectively uses the dual timeline to gradually reveal to the readers the secrets that both Millie and Ruth are hiding from one another.
While the dual timelines are an effective way to shed light on the lives of both sisters and how they’ve gotten to where they are, the author also presents the story in alternating viewpoints from each sister so that we are constantly getting both sides of the story and are allowed to make up our minds about each sister. I liked this presentation because I think if we had only gotten the perspective of one of the sisters, rather than both, it would have been easy to find one of them less sympathetic. The way the author chooses to present the story makes it easy to understand where each sister is coming from.
A final aspect of The Wartime Sisters I enjoyed was having the story actually set in the United States. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction in my day and I can count on one hand the number of WWII stories I’ve come across that focus on what WWII looked like from the U.S. I liked seeing it from this perspective and focusing a bit on the key roles that American women played in the war effort. Millie’s perspective offered so much insight into this as her job in the armory was to build trigger mechanisms as part of the rifle assembly line. Through Millie and her colleagues, we got to see firsthand the long hours and hard work women put in to get rifles into the hands of our soldiers.
Most of the time it felt like the historical aspect of the book took a backseat to the two sisters and their estranged relationship. I still thoroughly enjoyed the story but a little more balance between the history/war and the more personal drama would have made this a 5 star read for me.
If you’re looking for a poignant, emotionally engaging read about family and the complicated relationships they can have, and the dangers of keeping secrets, I would highly recommend The Wartime Sisters. The storyline is compelling, the characters are well drawn, and the historical setting is well researched. I think fans of historical fiction and/or domestic dramas would find this read to their liking.
Two estranged sisters, raised in Brooklyn and each burdened with her own shocking secret, are reunited at the Springfield Armory in the early days of WWII. While one sister lives in relative ease on the bucolic Armory campus as an officer’s wife, the other arrives as a war widow and takes a position in the Armory factories as a “soldier of production.” Resentment festers between the two, and secrets are shattered when a mysterious figure from the past reemerges in their lives.