“The Buchanan Girls” by Emily Madden is a novel with no great surprises. But it thoroughly engages you with strong characters and is ultimately very moving. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
In 1941 Sydney, the war is beginning to look very real. Australian men are signing up in ever greater numbers, and increasingly being sent to see action. US soldiers are flooding into Australia, both to use it as a staging post and to defend it from the Japanese threat.
Twins Olive and Ivy have very different attitudes to the war. Olive sees it as a personal inconvenience, keeping her from her husband and the life she “should” be living. Ivy sees it more broadly and desperately wants to do her part. She wants to join the Australian Women’s Army Service, be useful, and free up male soldiers to actually fight. But Olive’s desire to be a wife and wait prettily to provide a hero’s return is socially acceptable; Ivy’s desire is not. At least in the eyes of her father and grandmother.
Simultaneously we are following Madeleine in 2008. She’s lived in New York for years with her husband, but after discovering his cheating, she’s fled home to Sydney to work out what she wants to do in the long term. She’s utterly torn, and her husband’s texts, reminding her of significant dates in their relationship, don’t help.
It becomes clear very early that the characters in the two timelines are linked. Indeed, if there is a flaw in this novel – and some won’t be bothered by this at all – it’s that I was only halfway through the book when I’d worked out who everyone in 2008 was in relation to 1941. Mind you, I was still completely engaged in the journey of how they got from there to here. Knowing the end didn’t detract from that at all.
Madden’s previous novel, “Heart of the Cross” showed a deep familiarity with Sydney’s past. Here Madden is largely focused on the 1940s rather than the 1960s but shows a similar understanding of Australian attitudes and lifestyle at the relevant times.
Both novels rely largely on strong characters. Here both Olive and Ivy are vivid characters, and although Olive might be a harder stretch for some readers to believe in, it’s not really that difficult. The main focus is on Ivy and Madeleine in their different time periods. Both are engaging and real; most readers will quickly care what happens to them. Eventually parallels in their lives emerge, and few will be able to put the novel down without finding out how each resolves their dilemmas.
I found the end very moving, to my own surprise. I’m a bit of a cynic, and after all, I’d seen the end coming 200 pages earlier. And still, I misted up. Madden has a very subtle touch with her characters and gets you more emotionally involved than you realise.
This is a really good historical novel, though the focus is more on the characters than historical events – the era and attitudes matter more than the big events. Readers will be absorbed in the background and characters. And whether you’ve seen the end coming or not, it’s going to move you.
A selection of our Beauty and Lace Club Members are reading The Buchanan Girls by Emily Madden. You can read their comments below, or add your own review.
Author: Emily Madden
Copy courtesy of Mira (2021)
I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember, and I love sharing that joy.
I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember, across all genres. There’s not much I won’t at least try. I’ve been an enthusiastic book reviewer for years. I particularly enjoy discovering writers new to me, and sharing good writing with others.
My career has included time spent writing and editing technical documents, but it’s fiction that really moves me. I’ve reviewed for a number of different outlets over the years, and have been a judge in literary competitions.
I’m now raising little bookworms of my own, which brings a whole new kind of joy to sharing books.
More of my reviews can be found on my review blog www.otherdreamsotherlives.home.blog .