I really enjoyed 22 Britannia Road, so I was particularly pleased when Spilt Milk arrived on my doorstep. In this historical novel, sisters Rose, Vivian, and Nellie vow to be spinsters forever. Rose has raised the much younger Vivian and Nellie since the death of their parents when both girls were small. When she passes away in 1913, much too early, the girls are lost without her, with no notion of how to care for themselves. As a result, one of them manages to make a mistake that drives a wedge in their relationship forever, even after they’ve seemingly reconciled. Years later, Nellie’s daughter Birdie returns to her mother’s town, looking for elements of her own past. Will she uncover the secrets that Nellie and Vivian left behind and expose the potentially disastrous mistakes of their youth?
Ignorance never does anyone any favours, and the sisters in Spilt Milk, along with their sole offspring, suffer from this very lapse. Because no one ever really tells them about what’s in the world, and their education is limited, with all of the girls instead mistakenly assuming they’ll remain spinsters all their lives, they aren’t sure how to handle themselves when things don’t go to plan. And so they make mistakes – and they’re not the first women to do so. In the early twentieth century, innocence seems to go hand-in-hand with ignorance. Rose makes the mistake of never telling Vivian and Nellie about men, instead trying to get them both to stay with her. When a man shows up, of course, they both act in a way that may have been prevented, if only they’d known.
The entire book spools out from the consequences of that ignorance and misunderstanding. It’s no surprise that, when Nellie then goes out into the world, what she learns helps her make a more successful life for herself, avoiding her sister’s mistakes and any particularly damaging ones of her own. As time goes on, the specter of the secret diminishes, because standards are quickly changing, through both World Wars as the sisters age. What was once a disaster becomes something just slightly scandalous and by the end of the book no big deal.
I quite liked this book; it put an interesting perspective on the relationships between sisters, mothers, and daughters. The complex relationships between Vivian and Nellie, then Nellie and Birdie, are often truly moving. I wasn’t sure what I wanted each of the women to discover, but I knew I wanted to experience it through the eyes of each of the women. Practical but still loving Nellie was my favorite of them, I think – she is the one who goes out into the world, and she is the one who has the bravery eventually to seize more of her life, rather than letting it happen to her. But my heart broke for all of the women at various times as they change and grow and the results of their choices impact every aspect of their lives.
Spilt Milk would be a great read for a fan of women’s fiction who is tempted to try out something historical. Highly recommended.
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