Book chat: ‘Midnight in Chernobyl’

Midnight in ChernobylWhat do you know about Chernobyl?

What do you think you know about Chernobyl?

I’ll go first: until a few weeks ago, next to nothing. As the wife of a physicist, I’ve been with Spencer as he “talks science” on many occasions. He’s great at breaking things down when I ask questions, but I usually have to get him to start at the beginning. As an English nerd, I’ve always fashioned myself to be someone only moderately capable of understanding something like a positive void coefficient.

Adam Higginbotham’s stunning Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster changed all that. Not only am I apparently capable of understanding scientific principles a decade-plus after I last set foot in a classroom, but I can enjoy it, too. When Higginbotham is at the helm, at least.

Midnight in Chernobyl opens with the key players of the infamous April 1986 disaster — and that’s fitting, of course, given how many people and oppressive power structures all contributed to the eventual failing of the No. 4 reactor at the power station in Ukraine, then a part of the USSR. I already felt lost in the roll call, but my husband convinced me to stick with it. The names — unpronounceable, at first, to my western ear — all soon came sharply into focus: Akimov. Dyatlov. Brukhanov. Legasov.

It’s not about one person . . . not several people. Not a single system or single failure. Not just a single finger on one fateful button. “The holes in the Swiss cheese lined up,” as they say. And since zero people need a dissertation on Chernobyl from me, I’ll leave you to much wiser folks if you’re interested in the subject matter.

Better yet — read this book! It’s loads more fun than a bunch of Wikipedia entries, I assure you. Even if it is very interesting to see corresponding photos of everything Higginbotham describes.

What’s amazing about that, though, is I already had a thick stack of mental pictures: of the dark, water-filled tunnels beneath the reactor and its deep, burning throat; of the reactor hall blown open, and the people scrambling in its wake. Of the radioactivity so thick that it actually shrouds the bottoms of photos in something like fog. Higginbotham describes everything so poetically, it’s easy to forget we’re talking about nuclear meltdown. About science. This? It reads like literature.

I was hooked.

It’s no surprise that the author is a journalist. The book describes everything in stunning detail; his passion for the subject is evident. The level of research must have been insane. I loved when, toward its final pages, Higginbotham himself entered the narrative, describing the settings of his interviews with Chernobyl scientists still living or spouses left behind, picking up the radioactive wreckage all these years later.

Chernobyl2Now suitably intrigued by Chernobyl, like so many before me, I’ve started watching the acclaimed HBO miniseries after the kids go to bed. Spencer has already watched the whole thing through once (twice?), and it’s not exactly light bedtime viewing . . . it’s disturbing, of course. Incredibly well done and memorable, but not relaxing.

It’s hard to stop once you’ve started, though. From the evacuation of Pripyat — now an extreme tourist destination — to the government cover-ups and human toll eventually collected in Moscow’s Hospital No. 6, it’s impossible to look away from this terrible slice of history.

The show is great, but I didn’t need it to deepen my understanding of Chernobyl. Everything depicted in the show is as I’d imagined from Higginbotham’s writing. Midnight in Chernobyl paints such a vivid picture that I scarcely needed to “see” anything at all.

I won’t forget it. You won’t, either.


See more on Goodreads

Book chat: ‘Year of Yes’ by Shonda Rhimes

Year of YesI enjoyed the hell out of this book.

I’ll say it again, complete with cursing (and I don’t take that lightly): I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

As a woman. As a writer. As a mother. As a working mother. As a person that struggles with eating. As a human being with thoughts and hopes and feelings.

At the risk of sounding completely cliche, Shonda Rhimes? My spirit animal.

I’ll preface this review (will it be a review? More like nonsensical gushing, I fear . . .) by stating that, prior to picking up Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person, I knew little about Shonda herself. If you are similarly unfamiliar, she is the powerhouse behind Thursday nights on ABC: creator, head writer and executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” as well as “Private Practice.” She is also executive producer of “How to Get Away with Murder” and “The Catch,” produced by ShondaLand.

Shonda is, in her own words, an FOD: First Only Different. She is an African-American woman who has achieved tremendous success as a blockbuster writer and producer — doing what she loves and is clearly exceptional at: making TV “look like the rest of the world.”

I tend to go into motivational-type memoirs with a skeptical eye, but had a hunch I would like this one: and I did. I loved it. Shonda is personable, engaging, inspiring — as a person and a writer, of course, but also as a mother. With three daughters looking up to her as well as a powerful job, the pressure of doing everything well would crack anyone. Can we do it all?

To hear Shonda tell it: well, no. In one of my favorite chapters in Year of Yes, Shonda admits that excelling in one area of her life (work) often makes her feel like she’s failing in another (home), and vice versa. Over and over again. She gives a powerful analogy about once obsessing over Whitney Houston, wanting perfect hair like Whitney’s — trying anything and everything to achieve that signature look, but still failing.

Years later, a stylist confides not even Whitney had Whitney hair: it was a wig.

A wig.

Shonda talks about how, in acting like we have it all together and not discussing our struggles, we’re doing a disservice to other women. That’s a wig. It’s OK to admit we need help. Shonda’s comes in the form of one Jenny McCarthy: not the actress, but her wonderful nanny by the same name. She freely admits that, without Jenny, she could never keep all the plates spinning.

Yes of Yes arrived at the perfect time for me. Almost a year into motherhood, I’ve struggled with my quick return to work and how to similarly stay afloat with so many responsibilities pulling at me from all sides. After one poorly-timed (but not malicious) question about whether I “feel bad” dropping off my son at daycare each day, I needed Shonda. I needed Shonda to tell me I can do this. That I’m already doing it.

Not perfectly — because no one does, regardless of what they’ll tell you. But I’m trying, and that’s enough.

As a writer, I related deeply to Shonda’s stories of life “in the pantry”: when she was perfectly content to sit amongst the canned goods, staging elaborate battles between the vegetables and sealing herself off from the world. The youngest of six children, Shonda grew up in a loving family outside Chicago and has a close relationship with her siblings: especially sister Delores.

It’s a comment by Delores that sparks Shonda journey: “You never say ‘yes’ to anything.” It was muttered on a Thanksgiving morning, setting off a series of changes that resulted in saying “yes” to the things that would normally scare her. Public speaking was on the list, of course, but so was considering her diet. Morbidly obese at the start of the “Year of Yes,” Shonda realizes she had been putting food on top of feelings: saying “yes” to “fatness,” trying to ease her unhappiness by eating.

She doesn’t play up the weight loss as instrumental to her evolution, but shedding more than 100 pounds will certainly do that to a person. But far more than the physical weight, she says, was the weight of all the difficult conversations she hadn’t wanted to have: with a boyfriend about why she didn’t want to get married (ever, to anyone); to toxic friends she didn’t realize only wanted to see her unhappy. It’s only when begins asking hard questions — of others, but also herself — that she truly transforms.

By the end of Year of Yes, I felt altered with her. I thought of the ways I’d been mistreating myself, both through overindulgence and misplaced guilt about motherhood. About why I write and why I need to write, and why it’s OK to say I want to work and be a working mother.

Maybe I don’t need Shonda to validate my feelings, validate my choices, but I sure feel better having her as a part of my tribe. She mentions her “ride-or-dies” quite frequently — the people she can count on for anything. And she admits that one is technically fictitious, but very real to her: Cristina Yang of “Grey’s Anatomy,” a character written by Shonda and portrayed by Sandra Oh.

So Shonda, if I may be so bold, I’d like to add you to my ride-or-die list: a friend I feel I can always look to for support, guidance and motivation. Your Year of Yes found me at the moment I most needed to hear it, and listening to this book on audio — read, of course, by the author — was an amazing experience. Thank you.

5 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library

Book chat: ‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes

Me Before YouOh, you guys.

I can’t really think about this story without tearing up. I mean, I am deeply hormonal — but I really think I’d have been reduced to a whimpering mess even without a baby playing havoc with my emotions.

This book is powerful. Redemptive. Uplifting. Soul-wrecking. Funny, exhilarating, memorable. Basically, it’s everything I want in a book — and though I ardently wished it could have turned out differently, I understood it. This book? This book was love.

Louisa “Lou” Clark and Will Traynor meet at the most complicated points in their lives. For twenty-something Lou, life is a tireless march between the home she shares with her parents, sister, nephew and grandfather and the tea shop where the regulars all know her name. Day-to-day, nothing much changes; day-to-day, Lou has no plans for change. Or escape.

Will Traynor was a handsome, successful, high-flying London hotshot until a freak accident left him paralyzed with no desire to live. Now wheelchair-bound and living with his devastated parents, Will spends his days immersed in music or staring blindly at films. What he doesn’t want — or need — is a babysitter, but the freshly-unemployed Lou seems determined to fit that bill.

Though initially prickly, distant and cold, Will can’t help finding himself won over by Lou’s eccentric dress and caring personality; she is funny, kind, beautiful. Their days once spent in silence are soon filled with soaring conversation, and they open up to one another within the confines of Will’s home.

When Lou dares to begin to venture outside the safe walls Will has constructed, their friendship deepens — and her desire to make him see the world (and himself) as valuable becomes her reason for rising each day. But what — or who — could change Will’s mind about life?

Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You is easily one of my favorite reads in years. I whipped through it like crazy, simultaneously unable to part with it and absolutely dreading having finished it. When I got to the pivotal conclusion (which I will not spoil, don’t worry), I was sobbing as though I’d just gotten word that my soldier was never coming home.

Lou and Will’s growing dynamic makes this story — and I really fell for Lou. She is so resilient, funny, strong-willed, independent . . . yet still vulnerable and searching, searching. When she meets Will, she’s initially afraid of him and his coldness — but desperately needs the money his parents are paying for his care. She’s not a nurse (Will has someone for that); she’s there for moral support. Companionship. Hired for her cheery disposition, Lou is determined to be a friend.

And she is. As they begin to trust one another, I felt my heart bursting as they set out on adventures like attending a concert or going for walks around a nearby castle. Though Will seems broken, physically and spiritually, he finds healing in Lou’s company. They complement each other perfectly, actually, and I loved the idea that love comes in many forms.

As I approached the last few chapters, I felt a gnawing pit open in my stomach. Though I was desperate to learn what was going to happen, I worried endlessly about both Will and Lou. There was a surprising amount of romance and sensuality in their interactions; their relationship became quite intense. I grew concerned that one or both would get hurt, but realized hurt is inevitable.

Hurt is inevitable. But we can choose how to build from that hurt, how to use that hurt to become something greater, something more . . . and though my heart absolutely broke for Lou, I could see her becoming the woman she is meant to be. The fighter, the dreamer, the do-er that Will encourages.

Me Before You is not a novel I’ll soon forget, and it has cemented Jojo Moyes as one of my favorite storytellers. I loved One Plus One, but this story? It’s one for the ages.

5 out of 5

Pub: 2012 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Cascade’ by Maryanne O’Hara

CascadeI have to sort out my feelings on this.

Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade has been on my radar since I caught a glimpse of its gorgeous cover last summer, and Audra’s review tipped this into “book lust” category. Why it took me another nine months to read it? Honestly, I don’t know.

But since finishing Cascade early Sunday morning, it’s been lingering behind my eyelids. I read the last 100 pages in a sitting, almost breathless to discover what would become of star-crossed Desdemona, but felt something akin to grief upon finishing O’Hara’s captivating story.

I didn’t want to say goodbye.

Sometimes books speak to us — uniquely, exclusively. The elements of a particular story combine to seem formed just for you . . . and so it was with Cascade. I should preface my review by acknowledging my deep, overwhelming fear of water. Of drowning. Of being pulled under. The idea of an entire town being purposely dismantled and flooded to form a reservoir — of a place that once existed but has since been razed, morphed into a lake — is both fascinating and horrifying.

Cascade, Massachusetts is the kind of quintessential New England town you’d imagine Norman Rockwell’s subjects to inhabit. It’s idyllic and quaint, filled with friends and gossips — a place where everyone truly knows your name. Desdemona “Dez” Hart Spaulding grew up here, buried her mother and brother here, and shelved her dreams of art and New York to provide for her father in the last months of his life. Broke and facing homelessness, Dez agrees to marry Asa Spaulding, a goodhearted pharmacist, so William Hart will be safe in his final days. She’s so absurdly grateful for a roof over her head that she never hesitates to bind her life to Asa’s.

It’s the 1930s. The Great Depression. After the Roaring Twenties, after the Great War changed everything. As news of dust storms blotting out the sun clutter newsreels and bread lines curve around buildings, Dez knows she should be content — grateful — for the relatively comfortable life she shares with Asa. But after her father’s death, a feeling like claustrophobia pushes the air from her lungs.

And things are heating up in town. Long rumored but never made official, word is spreading that the state is finally ready to build a new reservoir for Boston. With its proximity to water and the city, Cascade seems the ideal choice. When Massachusetts sends out Stan Smith, a portly worker for the Water Authority, gossip and worry seep into the town’s very pores. Dez befriends Stan after he stops into her husband’s pharmacy, trying to glean information or a shred of hope for Cascade’s future, but the flood waters already seem to inch around the town. If chosen, Cascade faces imminent ruin. Complete demolition. To be filled until nothing remains.

In that atmosphere of uncertainty, a friendship between Desdemona and Jacob Solomon begins to blossom. A Jewish peddler carrying on his father’s traditions, Jacob also has artistic ambitions — and finds a kindred spirit in Dez, the savvy and creative daughter of a play master. With an appreciation for Shakespeare thanks to her father, Dez is worldly and interesting and nothing like most of the folks in Cascade: a group typically content to drink their root bear floats at Asa’s soda fountain and malign Jacob’s good name because he’s “one of them.”

With tensions brewing in Europe and in New England, Dez is faced with an earth rapidly shifting beneath her feet. And it’s time to make a move.

Reading Cascade was such a lush, complicated experience. My description doesn’t do justice to half the threads weaving O’Hara’s moving novel together — but a girl has to try. Of the many elements happening in one 350-page book, the connection brewing between Dez and Jacob captivated me completely. My heart literally ached reading about their friendship, however brief, and the story’s progression found me desperately hoping for something I knew could never be. Without giving anything way, I felt splintered by the novel’s close. Just splintered. Gut-punched.

And that’s the mark of a great story.

And this was a great story . . . the first 5-star book I’ve read in almost a year. A wholly unique tale. One with which I sympathized, and empathized, and became completely swept inside. Between its mirroring of Shakespearean classics and historical tidbits of life just before Pearl Harbor, O’Hara does a masterful job of portraying a town facing imminent destruction just as millions face a gruesome end in Europe. The distrust of the Jewish population — and of Jacob — was devastating, and made me thankful for the intervening years since World War II.

Just as interesting was the art scene — a vivid world portrayed through Dez’s work and connections. New York seemed a wholly familiar and unfamiliar place through O’Hara’s pen: a world I know but do not know. I loved the descriptions of Dez’s paintings and plans, and the light-filled studio rooms in which she would recreate safe spaces. It was romantic and lovely. And the overarching theme — “nothing gold can stay,” if you will, or nothing and no one lasts forever — made me sad and reflective but ultimately . . . hopeful? Yes. Hopeful.

There’s so much I want to talk about, but so much I cannot talk about. This is a story you need to experience and devour yourself. Though it took me 80 pages or so to become fully invested in Cascade’s future, I feel changed as a reader for having read this book. It was magnificent. There aren’t too many novels I’d herald as “a triumph,” the hyperbole of that making me squint, but seriously: Cascade is phenomenal. It touched me. It made me cry. It broke my heart. It raised so many questions.

I absolutely loved it, and it’s time to discover it for yourself.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0143123513 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter

When the beautiful Dee Moray first steps off a boat and into his isolated world, Pasquale Tursi
is a young man with dreams of putting his small Italian village on the map. He’ll build a tennis court on a cliff, he imagines; he’ll improve his family’s aging hotel, bringing Americans and their fat pocketbooks to Porto Vergogna. Dee appears like a phantom, the manifestation of everything he so desperately wants: love, security and beauty in the ruins. It’s 1962, and Pasquale will do anything to make her happy.

Decades later and a world away in L.A., disillusioned filmmaker Claire Silver is waiting for something to move her. Stuck in a boring relationship and feeling utterly stagnant, Claire logs long hours working for Hollywood legend Michael Deane, a man never afraid to call in a favor, and the pair are seeking redemption through whatever means necessary. When an aging Pasquale Tursi shows up at their door, calling in a favor himself, everyone’s life is turned upside down . . . before it’s righted again.

Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is spellbinding. Readers searching for something to sweep them up and out to sea need look no further than the author’s latest, and I can promise you the plot is every bit as delicious and enticing as the lush cover photo suggests.

Fluctuating between the making of the Liz Taylor and Richard Burton classic “Cleopatra” in Italy and present-day Los Angeles, Walter introduces a cast of unforgettable characters. Though I was innately more interested in the scenes from 1962 than the modern plotline, both were crucial to Walter’s story of love lost and found — and honor redeemed. Pasquale is a hopelessly endearing character — someone you want to hug and help. Naive, lovely actress Dee entrances him immediately, but it’s hard to tell if it’s Dee that effortlessly captures his heart . . . or the idea of what she could finally bring to his colorless life.

You know how sometimes you’re reading, grow bored and just skim a bunch of paragraphs . . . only to realize you’ve missed absolutely nothing? I hate that. And Beautiful Ruins is the opposite of that reading experience. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it masterpiece of many intricate stories, and the setting made me feel like I could step in and share a glass of wine with the motley Italian crew. Even Michael Deane, a selfish baffoon who royally screws up others’ lives, manages to somehow seem likeable.

The book’s story-within-a-story quality completely sucked me in, too. Beyond the fate of the principle characters, we’re given the movie treatment of a heartwarming tale of . . . cannibalism. (Yes: cannibalism.) And somehow it still sounded like a moving, captivating film I might want to see. Honestly.

Readers craving a vibrant story offering glimpses at old Hollywood, the Italian seaside, the effects of war on the innocent and the bonds (and sacrifices) of love need only grab Beautiful Ruins. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year (adding to this list!) and one that certainly deserves a spot in your beach bag.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061928127 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Girl Unmoored’ by Jennifer Gooch Hummer

Sometimes a novel hops into your lap, looks into your weary eyes and wraps its little paper arms around you. The hug from this book feels so real, so good that you never want to part with it — and that’s exactly how I feel about Girl Unmoored. And Apron Bramhall, a redheaded teen heroine unique enough to match her name.

It’s 1985 in small-town Maine, and seventh-grader Apron Bramhall is grappling with many competing forces: the aftermath of the unexpected loss of her mother; her father’s sudden remarriage to Marguerite, a woman Apron stubbornly refers to only as “M”; the betrayal of her best friend and its accompanying loneliness; and the appearance of Mike and Chad, two florists who form an unlikely alliance with our young heroine.

In a story brimming with love, warmth, loss, grief and everything in between, Apron must come to grips with her changed family — and the changing world.

It’s almost impossible to summarize Jennifer Gooch Hummer’s Girl Unmoored — mostly because this story was so much more than I ever thought it would be, and caused me to feel So Many Emotions I can barely articulate them all. Knowing it deals with loss and grief, I wasn’t sure how maudlin the story would become . . . but in Hummer’s very talented hands, what could have ventured into sad-sack territory somehow left me feeling enlightened and uplifted.

Reflecting on the book, that’s the word that keeps coming back to me: uplifted. Because even a book about death, homophobia, pain and ignorance somehow left me feeling good. And yes, I’m serious — I think it would be nearly impossible to finish Girl Unmoored without some sort of smile on your face. Because Apron? She’s amazing. And I’m feeling amazed by how much I adored this book.

Where was sassy, bright, hilarious, brave and klutzy Apron when I was 13? Because really, girl knows what’s what. Partly because her mother’s terminal illness robbed her of a childhood, I know, but she’s incredible all the same. After all these changes, Apron feels . . . well, unmoored. At least until she meets Mike, a handsome actor portraying the title role in a local theatre’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Apron attends with her judgmental friend Rennie, a simple girl who comes from a deeply religious family. When word gets around that Mike is a little more than “friends” with Chad, and that Chad is has a mysterious illness, proverbial — and literal — stones are cast at them. And Apron — amazing Apron — is somehow the link that holds everyone together.

I can’t tell you why I loved this story so much, but I read parts with my hands shaking and tears streaming down my face. One particularly incredible moment — which I won’t spoil for you — comes near the close of the novel . . . when Apron retrieves a photo of her mother to give to someone in need. When she passes it over and explains why she’s sharing it, I actually felt like my heart was breaking. Like, cracked open on a broken mirror. And it’s been a long time since I felt like a book was breaking through that harsh Meg exterior.

I loved Hummer’s writing and Apron’s unique turns of phrase, especially when she was embarrassed or scared or angry (“My hair is melting,” for instance). I loved Mike and Chad and the pure devotion they had to one another; I even loved Dennis, Apron’s screwed-up, grief-stricken father, because I can’t fault him for what he does and somehow wound up caring deeply for him. Even “M,” Apron’s mother’s nurse-cum-wifely-replacement, had her endearing moments . . . until she said something that made me want to punch her. And then? Then I was glad things worked out as they did. I also loved Dennis’ obsession with Latin and how he instills a passion for it in Apron, and how each chapter opens with a telling phrase that had me wanting to read them all aloud.

Despite all my crying fits, I finished Girl Unmoored feeling like I could spend another 1,000 pages with Apron. Like I wanted to meet up with her a decade later for coffee, chatting about what she’d done with all that curiosity, courage and intellect. Though our narrator is a kid, absolutely nothing about this book is child-like — and I’m not sure how it’s being marketed. Young adult fiction? Coming-of-age drama? Contemporary fiction?

Regardless, readers, lend me your ears (eyes?): read this book. You will feel human and alive. It’s the one I’m going to be touting all year, declaring to others that this is the book we should all be trying to write. And the one we should all want to read.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1936558300 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Wildflower Hill’ by Kimberley Freeman

Life is hard for Beattie Blaxland, a young Scottish woman struggling to help her family make ends meet in Glasgow. It’s 1929 and everyone is struggling to stay afloat, clutching tightly to their meager wages and stretching them as far as they can. Beattie tries to help her parents by working at a restaurant, and this is where she meets Henry. His marital status doesn’t keep him from flirting with pretty young Beattie, an innocent girl with hopes for the future. Their flirtation eventually leads to clandestine trysts, contact Beattie uses as an escape from her troubled home life. Though she knows it’s wrong, the affair still feels good — until Beattie discovers she’s pregnant.

Disowned by her mother and exiled from the house, Beattie eventually tells Henry about her condition — and the response isn’t positive. Beattie is encouraged by a friend to escape to a country home for women “in her way” until the baby is born. Devastated at having lost both her parents and Henry in one fell swoop, Beattie is shocked to find Henry arriving at the group home with plans for an escape to Tasmania. He’s left his stubborn old mule of a wife, he tells her, and wants to start over. Start over with Beattie and their child.

Life in Tasmania is no cake walk, and Henry soon spends his slight wages on drink rather than food for she and Lucy, their infant daughter. Left to her own devices once again, Beattie tries to turn over a new leaf elsewhere in the country. Through happenstance she discovers Wildflower Hill, a country estate run by a lecherous rich Englishman, and it’s there that her story — and the later story of Emma, her granddaughter — is born.

Kimberley Freeman’s Wildflower Hill is one of the most enchanting, engrossing and poignant novels I’ve read in a long time. It was so absorbing that I tackled all 544 pages over a few days, reading as much of Emma and Beattie’s story as I could between pesky obligations like work and sleep. Freeman enchanted me with her stories of life in Scotland, Australia and Tasmania, and I was truly sad when I turned the last page. I could have read 500 more.

Wildflower Hill spans three generations of women as it fluctuates between Beattie’s third-person past and Emma’s firsthand accounts of life as a prima ballerina in modern-day London, followed by her unexpected return to Sydney and Wildflower Hill Beattie once called home. There’s so much happening here — so very much — but I never once felt bogged down or frustrated with the novel. The pacing is such that you feel as if you’re on a gripping rollercoaster, gliding from one plot point to another.

I’ll admit to taking more of a shine to Beattie than Emma, who initially comes across as a spoiled snot, but the beauty of Wildflower Hill stems from how well I knew these characters by the book’s close. Beattie is an extraordinary woman who spins wheat into gold with nothing more than her two hands and honest ingenuity, and my heart genuinely broke for her at each tragic turn in her life. Despite the weight of the cards stacked against her, Beattie perseveres and finds success. She’s a role model for Emma, who wants nothing more than to dance, and it’s through Beattie’s life and past that Emma finds the will to move forward after a career-ending injury.

The book is stitched together with secrets and mysteries, including what happens to Lucy and how Beattie eventually triumphs over her poverty-stricken existence. Freeman masterfully builds suspense by revealing just enough of the past to keep us intrigued, and we often know things about Beattie’s life far before her granddaughter does. I loved the switches between past and present, highlighting the ways this grandmother and granddaughter were alike — and different.

And the settings. Oh, the settings! Urban Scotland and the wilds of Tasmania! The nasty countryfolk who couldn’t accept an unwed mother and the philandering boyfriend who couldn’t appreciate a good thing — Emma — when he saw it! And all this is to say nothing of the romances building slowly and erupting in both past and present, making me swoon with every page. And cry, too.

By now, I’m guessing you figured out I absolutely loved this book. It had everything I crave in a story: the perfect blend of historical and contemporary fiction; family dynamics; epic romance; enough mystery and intrigue to keep me reading frantically; a wham-BANG! of an ending that had tears rolling down my cheeks. Don’t let the book’s size deter you: this was the most fun I’ve had with a book in a long, long time. Fans of contemporary and women’s fiction will delight in this modern-day The Thornbirds, a novel rivaling  this one in terms of scope and family drama (but with a happier ending).

It’s an instant favorite. Don’t miss it.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1451623496 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review