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Friday, January 2, 2015

'The Maxwell Sisters' by Loretta Hill

Received via NetGalley

From the BLURB:

All families have their problems. No more so than the Maxwells of Tawny Brooks Winery. Situated in the heart of the Margaret River wine region, this world-renowned winery was the childhood home to three sisters, Natasha, Eve and Phoebe.

Today all three women are enmeshed in their city lives and eager to forget their past - and their fractured sibling relationships. Until Phoebe decides to get married at home . . .

Now the sisters must all return to face a host of family obligations, vintage in full swing and interfering in-laws who just can't take a hint. As one romance blossoms and others fall apart, it seems they are all in need of some sisterly advice. But old wounds cut deep. Somehow, The Maxwell Sisters must find a way back to one another – or risk losing each other forever.

‘The Maxwell Sisters’ is the new contemporary fiction novel from Australia author Loretta Hill, who so impressed me with her Pilbara-set romance books: 'The Girl in the Hard Hat' and 'The Girl in Steel-Capped Boots' among them. ‘Maxwell Sisters’ is the first book, and I’m told (by the author herself, via Twitter) that at least two more books are planned in the same Margaret River wine region. 

I had a bit of a sinking feeling as I started reading this, only because it had elements of a Monica McInerney novel I read in 2013, a novel I happened to hate. ‘The Alphabet Sisters’ was about three sisters reuniting at their family home after years of silence following an explosive feud – namely around the youngest sister stealing the middle sister’s fiancée. When they reunited the middle and youngest sister had to have it out (but never really did) over the betrayal, and oldest sister (long thought to be perfect) had to slowly reveal how her marriage was collapsing.

Loretta Hill's had similar elements to McInerney’s novel … or what I thought were similar elements at first. ‘The Maxwell Sisters’ sees youngest sister Phoebe getting married, and calling her feuding middle and older sisters home a month early under the guise of wedding arrangements, but really to mend fences.

Phoebe is marrying Spider, celebrity TV chef and her sister Eve’s former restaurant partner, and best friend … but unbeknownst to her, he’s also the man Eve has unrequitedly loved for years now, and she’s still struggling to come to terms with what could have been.

Meanwhile, eldest “perfect” sister Natasha is returning home with some bad news … her marriage is over, and she and her husband Heath have been living in separate states for the last month. But when she arrives at her parents infamous winery, she is surprised to discover Heath there too – adamant that they still have a marriage worth saving, and banking on Tash not wanting to lose face with her family by pre-emptively telling them about her marriage breakdown.

The stage being set, and the sister’s initially being at odds with one another, Hill’s and McInerney’s books become vastly different in their plots and execution – where ‘The Alphabet Sisters’ fell flat in pretty much every single way for me, I read Hill’s ‘The Maxwell Sisters’ as being a phenomenal contemporary romance cross between King Lear and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ … as the sister’s enjoy spending a month together under the stealthy influence of their beloved patriarch, a famous wine man who has often been called “mad” for his belief in celestial tides affecting the grapes. The Maxwell sisters must grapple with their misconceptions and assumptions about one another’s lives and feelings – having so lost touch with one other over the last few years, the novel becomes about how these three reconnect and fit back into each other’s lives.

Along the way there is romance to be had – for Eve it’s the new manager her father has employed, the delicious Adam “Adonis” (as she calls him) who is running from his own problems. Natasha must decide if she’s really ready to turn her back on her husband and their previously blissful marriage, and Phoebe becomes increasingly suspicious of Spider in the lead-up to their wedding … Hill’s romances for the three are excellent, especially for being so nuanced and proportionate to the bigger issues going on in the sister’s lives and familial relationships. Just as her Pilbara books were more about the female characters surviving in tough, male-dominated work places (that, for their remote locations, became living quarters too), ‘The Maxwell Sisters’ is likewise more about the sister’s realigning with each other than it is solely a vehicle for their love lives to get back in order. I think that’s where Hill really excels in her contemporary fiction – she never forgets the real heart of the story, the meatier characterisation and bonds are not playing second-fiddle to the lovey-dovey stuff.

That being said – and although Hill did a remarkable job of making me root for all the sisters (even the Mary Sue-esque character of Phoebe), I especially loved Eve’s story with Adam/Adonis, which starts off snarky and then progresses to sparky. I especially loved Eve’s story because she is the more underdog sister –unmarried, lusting after her sister’s fiancée (and has been for years) a failed business owner and the shorter/curvier one, compared to her willowy sisters.

By the time she got back to the couch, Phoebe and Natasha were already seated there on either side of her father. They had both seized the opportunity to get his attention while she had rushed off to get stuff organised. How familiar the scene was. As a young girl, she had often thought of herself as the Cinderella of the family. Only the analogy was definitely flawed – neither of her sisters were ugly and her life was still a pumpkin.
‘Here, Dad, drink this.’ She held out the glass of water to her father and sat down on the edge of the coffee table.He took it rather absentmindedly as he gazed at each of his daughters in turn. ‘Look at you all.’ He sipped his water. ‘All of you in the same room. My beautiful girls. My life is literally flashing before my eyes.’

As I was reading this (and I did so in one sitting – staying up until 1AM) I found myself hoping, finger-crossing that Loretta Hill would be turning this into a series … and as I discovered on Twitter, she is! I’m especially keen because there are two other wineries mentioned, and the breadcrumbs laid for the stories around those family-run wineries are intriguing … there’s mention of a Jack Franklin, “the region’s most notorious womaniser,” and member of a rival family; “the Franklins and the Maxwells had been mortal enemies from day one, especially when it came to wine.” Seriously, I cannot wait!

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of this e-book via NetGalley, and I did find it funny that after reading it on December 18, it became the first book to make my ‘Favourite Books of 2015’ list, and so soon after mentioning ‘The Maxwell Sisters’ in my ‘Most Anticipated Books of 2015’ list too! It really was a wonderful read, and I can’t wait to return to the region and meet the Franklin family next. Loretta Hill is such a wonderful voice in Australian contemporary fiction; beautifully balancing romance and family tales that tug at the heart.

5/5

2 comments:

  1. I've never read Loretta Hill but am adding this ~ already reserved a copy at my library (and so weird all those similarities. I tried to read the alphabet sisters to and never finished it...). Love books that keep you up until 1am :)

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    Replies
    1. It's soooooo good - definitely a great intro to Hill's work :)
      I hope you like it!

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