Steady, calm Rita Vincenzo lives in Iowa and fills her days working in her garden, going to mass, and trying to appease her crotchety neighbor, Mrs. Kleinschmidt. Then there is impulsive and enthusiastic Glory Whitehall who lives a more privileged life in New England. Expecting her second child, she faces the challenges of mothering a rambunctious young boy and the knowledge that her mother-in-law finds her lacking.
A fortuitous pairing through Rita and Glory's involvement with each one's local 4-H society connects these two women with seemingly little in common. As the story progresses, they bond over letters. The women are looking for a diversion from their day-to-day lives, which are consumed missing and worrying about loved ones fighting in the war. Glory is aching for her young husband Robert, while Rita misses her husband Sal, who she believes is too old to have enlisted, as well as her son Toby, who is too young to be facing the horrors of war.
As Rita and Glory get to know each over the course of two and a half years from January 1943 to June 1945, they share glimpses into their daily lives. They give readers a peek at life in the United States volunteering at the United Service Organizations, Victory Gardens, German POW camps on U.S. soil and the escalating murmurings of the feminist movement. Rita and Glory write to each other about the mundanesharing gardening tips and recipes keeping war rationing under consideration (see 'Beyond the Book')as well as the bigger moments of upheaval when life changes completely.
Rita must get to know Toby's previously secret lover, a downtrodden and borderline illiterate young woman; while Glory faces confusing feelings spurred by attention from her husband's best friend and the worries of caring for a sick child in a time when penicillin was not readily available. They take turns confessing their true feelings and also reassuring one another. And, when necessary, each one scolds the other as only a true friend can.
The distinct and separate voices of the two womencreated by dual authors Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhanring true and are equally compelling. Interestingly, these two authors have had a parallel kind of relationship. Hayes, who has also written books under the name Suzanne Palmieri, lives in Connecticut while Nyhan lives in Illinois. The two women met online and began a long distance correspondence which developed into a friendship and eventually led to this collaboration. At the time of publication, the two still had yet to meet in person. In the book, the two voices work well with each other and it is easy to switch back and forth between the perspectives.
As the story unfolds, the reader gets to know Rita and Glory at the same pace that they get to know each other. I found the idea of getting to know someone purely through letters to be an interesting idea, and more relatable than one might first think. A letter to a stranger allows one to convey oneself as desired. It is possible to only reveal deliberately chosen facets of one's personality and life, much as modern readers create a certain online persona. The brevity and focus of the letters between Rita and Glory allows a distillation down to what matters most to these ordinary women living in extraordinary times. As they gain trust and respect for one another, each one opens up her heart a little wider allowing her distant friend to see what she keeps hidden from the people who see her on a day-to-day basis.
The secondary characters add a depth and richness to the women's stories and allow for a clearer picture of the times. Through these characters' eyes we get to know the women's husbands and to hear each couple's love story. Both Rita and Glory know men who are not drafted for different reasons and who feel a kind of conflicted survivor guilt for being unable to serve. Although Rita, with German ancestry and an Italian husband, faces discrimination, she learns more about the weight of this cultural burden through the fears of Mrs. Kleinschmidt, a fellow German. Glory introduces readers to New England's high society and explains the snobbery between old and new money.
As time passes, the women become more involved in some of the new opportunities available. Rita takes on a job at the local university and realizes she is more than competent. Glory becomes involved with a group of feminist socialists and discovers she has a gift for public speaking. And yet, what continues to rise to the top are the women's cares for their families and neighbors; all they really want is to hold loved ones close and find joy in the little things like a good recipe and a satisfying garden. The story is a good reminder that each generation and culture has its own particular challenges and yet, at the core, perhaps we are all striving for the same love and security. When we are weak and tempted, a true friend might serve as a moral thermometer. And when our hearts break from grief and loss, a friend can be a lifeline, a reminder that life must go on, even in the face of tragedy.
Although each woman faces interesting challenges and discovers new insights over the course of this novel, the plot is somewhat predictable. Many of the events feel familiar and have been done before. And yet, perhaps this is why the story rings true. Regardless, it is the voices of the two characters and their friendshiptheir mutual respect, love, and interest in each other's lifethat makes it easy to root for Rita and Glory when all is well, and to ache with them when it's not.
This review is from the July 24, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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