In brief: Three generations of Stewart women work together on the family farm in rural Western Australia. A chance finding of some old letters sets the women off on a journey that will reveal pain secrets, but ultimately bring love into their lives.
The good: Fiona Palmer absolutely nails the rural setting. You can’t get more realistic than this.
The not-so-good: I was completely in love with Stefano and would have loved him to appear earlier. Can he have a book of his own please?
Pages: 360 (ARC)
Publisher: Penguin (Michael Joseph)
Setting: Western Australia and Italy
My rating: 9 out of 10
I would have written this review as soon as I finished reading, but it was near midnight when I finished this lovely story of three women on the land! I don’t think my thoughts would have been coherent at this stage, so hopefully my ‘morning after’ thoughts will encourage you to read this novel by Fiona Palmer, which takes a forgotten part of Western Australia history and weaves it into a spellbinding narrative.
The story is already close to my heart because of its setting – a farm, Sunnyvale, near Pingaring, a tiny town in country Western Australia. It’s not far from where my godmother grew up and where my grandparents lived many years ago. Being a proud West Aussie, I’m always on the lookout for great W.A. stories – how could I have missed Fiona Palmer’s books before? Sunnyvale is home to three generations of Stewart women – the matriarch Maggie, her daughter Toni and granddaughter Flick. All work hard on the farm, from feeding the shearers (this brought back stories of my mum talking about how my Nan made cakes/biscuits/slices for smoko) to organising the sheep for shearing. It’s a busy life that doesn’t really allow for interruptions. Flick is content to work on the farm forever, but Toni wants her to see some of the world. When Flick finds letters in the old homestead addressed to Maggie, Toni gets her wish – but not as she thought it would happen. The letters are from Rocco, a former Italian prisoner of war who was based at Sunnyvale during World War II, to Maggie. The letters are unopened, but their finding reveals a secret buried deep in Maggie’s fast. Suddenly life at Sunnyvale is turned upside down, and Flick and Toni make the journey to Italy to search for Rocco. Will the Sunnyvale women be able to make sense of the new revelations in their lives and open themselves to love?
I really enjoyed this book to the point where I was disappointed that an appointment I had didn’t run later (hence the reading late into the night). Fiona Palmer writes the West Australian farming setting perfectly, which set off my own set of reminisces about my childhood holidays on the farm. You can see the crops growing, hear the sheep baa-ing and feel the heat coming up through the red dust as you read. When the action moves to Italy, it’s as if another world had opened up to me – I could picture the gorgeous vistas, taste the fresh pasta with truffle and see the handsome young men walking around towns bathed in history. This brings me to the character of Stefano, who Toni and Flick meet in Italy. He’s gorgeous, both inside and out. He’s a worthy hero to feisty, independent Flick and calms down her eagerness to do everything right here, right now. When Stefano entered the narrative, I fell in love. The Italian section of the novel was very well done and the icing on the cake was when Fiona told the tale of her own research into Italy for this book. Truly enchanting!
Another thing I enjoyed about The Sunnyvale Girls was the chapters that went back in time to Maggie’s youth while Rocco and Giulio were working on the farm. It was a great insight into the past and not one that is often talked about generally. It was interesting that people had stories to tell about the Italian POWs at the talk I went to, which was fascinating. We need to talk about this more before it’s too late! The reaction of Maggie’s mother to the POWs was jarring in contrast with the more tolerant attitude to different nationalities today and what she did to Maggie? Unspeakable. I’m surprised that Maggie wasn’t angrier. However, Maggie does get her happy ending. Toni does too – it’s lovely to see women of all ages represented equally in this book, making it appealing to all generations of women in your family.
In summary, The Sunnyvale Girls is a wonderfully authentic read that celebrates family, love and history in an exceptionally well-rendered setting.