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Review: The Sisters of Summit Avenue, by Lynn Cullen
Gallery, 2019. 312 pp. $27

Coming of age in 1920s Indiana with barely a penny to their names and kindly but incompetent parents, sisters June and Ruth are fiercely attached but deadly competitive. Elder June, the popular girl, the beauty, the one with artistic talent, wants to escape their drab existence, to make something of herself. Bookish Ruth, deemed less capable, less everything, wants the attention she believes she’s never received. Accordingly, throughout their lives together, whatever June gets, Ruth wants. Shortly before Ruth’s eighteenth birthday, she settles on June’s fiancé, John, as her next goal.

But though Ruth marries John and settles down on his family farm, by 1934, she’s up against it. A heretofore rare form of encephalitis that has swept the country in the 1930s has left John mostly comatose. Their farm is failing, Ruth struggles to raise four kids, and her mother, who lives with them, is too lost in dreams of a past that never existed to have much to offer.

Marjorie Husted, the actress who portrayed Betty Crocker on the radio, ca. 1944 (courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, “Fight Food Waste in the Home,” Office for Emergency Management, Office of War Information; via Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, June has married a successful doctor, a cheerful, controlling narcissist, Richard Whiteleather (now, there’s a name) and lives in a mansion in St. Paul, Minnesota. June has jewels, fashionable dresses, and a country-club membership, but she remains insecure about her origins, and she’s childless, which breaks her heart. She has a job with the flour company, answering the tons of letters lonely, frustrated, harried women write to Betty Crocker — an advertising logo, not a real person — and working up the recipes and pamphlets distributed in her name. You can guess what Ruth thinks of her sister’s job:

In between giving out recipes, Betty tipped off her followers on how to win a husband and keep him, not only by taking the proverbial shortcut through his stomach, but by keeping themselves attractive and interesting. Betty, with her on-air interviews with bachelors about what they looked for in a wife and her ten-cent booklets full of man-pleasing recipes, implied that men were like dumb beasts running free on the plains, unaware that they were being stalked, until, bang! they were shot down by “Apricot Topsy-Turvy” or “Peeps and Squeals Sandwiches,” served by a perky huntress in an apron. She wondered how her sister could live with herself, contributing to this nonsense. Of course, Sister June had always been a big game hunter.

Not only does Ruth resent June for earning money through artifice, while she herself struggles to farm (presumably raising the wheat that makes the flour), she hates it all the more that June sends her every penny she earns. Ruth, who stole John from June, has to watch while crippling illness steals him back. June, who suffers from Richard’s self-centeredness, envies Ruth’s ability to have children by the man they both love, even though he’s now lost to the world.

The family dynamic reveals so much by itself, you understand their world, no explanation required. Combine weak parents, rivalry for attention, ambivalent attachment, and thwarted desires, and you see why, for example, either sister would want John, a kind person but a man incapable of asserting himself.

However, I wish Cullen didn’t tell feelings so often when they really matter; she’s more than capable of showing them. I also wish she’d built the novel more coherently, especially in the first third, when the narrative leaps back and forth from decade to decade in three different narrator’s heads. There’s a lot of back story to cover, and no doubt Cullen settled on this narrative form after trying others, but it takes a while for the central event to occur, a visit to Ruth’s farm by June and Richard, which leads to confrontations everyone has been avoiding forever.

Still, Cullen’s keen, subtle sense of human psychology wins the day, and you can see how family resentments and foolishly kept secrets have cascaded through the years. As a storyteller, she knows how to employ emotional “no — and furthermore,” in which internal narrative, triggered by mundane events, ratchets up the tension. This requires no manipulation or contrivance: It’s character-driven narrative at its best.

That is, until the end, which I find implausible. Partly, that’s because Cullen has done such a fine job pushing her characters into tight corners that redemption is no longer an option. I don’t want to give anything away, of course, but to take one minor example, consider that Richard, the egotistical doctor, might not be so pliable a character as that. Such people don’t change easily; and, further, there’s a wonderful scene in which June’s mother-in-law freely talks about her son’s unbounded greed for what he wants. Mother knows best, I think.

If you can love ninety percent of a novel and slap your head in consternation at the remaining ten percent, that’s how I feel about The Sisters of Summit Avenue. Read it for the terrific character studies; but I think the author, who has done brilliantly portraying messy lives, may have tried to tidy up too much.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.