Author: Fiona Palmer
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Fiona Palmer immortalises her hometown of Pingaring and some of its wartime history in The Sunnyvale Girls, a touching story spanning three generations of strong Stewart women living on Sunnyvale.
I went into The Sunnyvale Girls without even reading the cover blurb because it was digital so I was pleasantly surprised to discover in the acknowledgements that there was historical inspiration behind the story, Pingaring was host to Italian POWs in the 1940s.
The Sunnyvale Girls are Maggie, widowed matriarch and now keeper of the kitchen; her only daughter Toni who is 53 and runs the farm; and her 20 year old daughter Flick. The three are strong and independent single women living together on the farm with hired hand, who has become like family, Jimmy. Jimmy joined them after Maggie was widowed four years ago.
Flick and Toni are often at loggerheads because Toni wants Flick to travel, to realise there is more to the world than Sunnyvale and its immediate surrounds but Flick is happy right where she is. She was born to Sunnyvale and it’s all that she wants. Toni on the other hand always wanted to travel but was tied to the farm because her father needed her, now she wants Flick to have all the opportunities she missed out on.
Housing at Sunnyvale began with a small cottage which was left empty when Maggie and her parents moved into a house built by the Italian POWs working on their farm in 1944 and the house that they are living in now. I’m not sure what came of the original cottage to be honest but the house built by the Italians was being restored by Flick so she could move out of the farmhouse and have her own space. In the course of restoring one of the bedrooms she discovers a loose floorboard and unearths a pile of unopened letters addressed to Maggie.
The fallout from the letters was not unexpected and much of what came after was a little predictable but the details and the way it was written totally made up for that.
Maggie is only recently single, widowed four years earlier when her husband of almost 50 years passed away. Her life is on the farm with her girls and she has everything she needs. We soon discover Arthur was not her first love and you never forget your first love. There has been talk through the years of the Italian prisoners but Maggie’s feelings were never discussed. At the time a pairing of the two would have been the talk of the town, and none of it good, so when he left and Maggie never heard from him again she moved on. The letters prove he didn’t just return home and forget all about her, she meant a lot to him.
We learn of Maggie’s first love affair with Rocco through flashbacks, giving us a firsthand look at life in wartime WA; the challenges for farmers who lost sons to the war and the challenges for POWs far from home.
Toni is terminally single, she has never had any serious relationships – Flick and the farm always came first. She fell pregnant after a one night stand and doesn’t even know his last name. She had the support of her parents and was a little older so Flick was a gorgeous gift that she may otherwise have missed out on.
Flick has had bad luck with men, she seems to attract ones that won’t treat her well; growing up her grandfather was the only male role model in her life and now she has Jimmy who makes for a fabulous father figure.
It seems Maggie’s letters are just the inspiration Flick needed to leave the farm as she and Toni make plans for an Italian holiday. Toni finally gets to travel as she always dreamed and Flick has her eyes opened to the world beyond the WA border.
The Italian trip offers the reader a wealth of scrumptious food as well as breathtaking scenery and picturesque towns. All of which are vividly described to take the reader on a whirlwind trip with the Stewart women. Palmer took this trip herself when researching The Sunnyvale Girls lending an authenticity that may otherwise have been missing.
Toni finally gets her chance at romance, after having her mind opened to opportunity and the desire to find her own happiness. This romance is slow and tentative allowing Toni to come to terms with the challenges she sees. Palmer explores Toni’s relationship with depth and sensitivity, addressing the issues that Toni feels she’s facing and had me hoping she’s found her happily ever after.
Flick finally found a man that treats her the way she deserves but the course of true love never did run smooth and this is no exception.
Very different situations have the Stewart women gaining a greater understanding of each other, growing through trying situations and forging stronger bonds.
Fiona Palmer is an Australian author that I always enjoy though haven’t read as many of her novels as I would like. I definitely have her earlier work on my wishlist.
The Sunnyvale Girls took me sightseeing in places I will probably never see while jerking on my heartstrings and leaving me pondering what came next for the three generations of Stewart women long after I turned the last page. Palmer leaves us with a satisfying ending that does not tie up all the loose ends, it leaves us wondering what’s next, which is sure to keep these characters in my mind.