REVIEW: Four Respectable Ladies Seek Part-time Husband by Barbara Toner

In brief: In a small Australian country town, four women are struggling post World War I. What they need is a part-time husband!

The good: Interesting premise.

The not-so-good: I found it difficult to separate the female characters in my head.

Why I chose it: Sounded interesting, thanks to Penguin Australia for the copy.

Year: 2018

Pages: 375

Publisher: Bantam (Penguin)

Setting: Prospect, New South Wales, Australia

Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Four Respectable Ladies Seek Part-time Husband is a book that honestly, didn’t work for me. On paper, it ticks many of the boxes I enjoy in fiction: central female characters, Australian, historical setting and a bit of a laugh. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite get into this book enough to enjoy it. Looking at other reviews, I’m easily in the minority.

The premise of the book is interesting and unique. It’s set after World War I and Spanish influenza have decimated Australia’s men (and women). For four women in the small country town of Prospect, things are dire in different ways but the one thing they have in common is being restricted by their gender. Nobody is willing to believe them or take them seriously – and when I say nobody, that’s the men of Prospect. Pearl is looking for her fiancé who is missing, but the local priest refuses to tell her anything. Adelaide’s husband has PTSD from the war. She knows that the manager of the family business is stealing from them, but nobody will take her seriously. Louisa is in deep debt from her dead husband’s schemes, but the bank manager won’t help. Maggie is trying to raise her two brothers and fight for their land, but she’s dismissed as silly. Initially, these women aren’t really friends – sure, they know each other as they live in the small town – but they have a lot in common. Add the idea of one part-time husband to share and it brings them together…

I found the story to be a mix of drama with occasional touches of the tragi-comic, which didn’t always work for me. Sometimes I laughed and sometimes I felt guilty for doing so. Occasionally the women came through as a bit silly, perhaps reflecting the way they were seen through the eyes of men – dramatic, over the top but ultimately unimportant. I didn’t really feel comfortable with that. I also found each of the main characters hard to separately, particularly early on the book. Their backstories/reasons for needing help were clear, but on the page I couldn’t separate who was talking or who we were meant to follow. Louisa and Adelaide blended into one quite a lot. While linking the characters by them thinking/doing something similar is quite clever (and I imagine requires a lot of skill to do), I just got lost. Maybe this was because I mainly read at night after work, but I found myself rereading (and rereading) the paragraph before, wondering why Louisa has now morphed into Maggie. The part-time husband Martin also was a bit of a trip – I couldn’t warm to him.

I think I would have done better with this book if I’d been able to read it in large chunks and taken a lighter, more humorous approach to the book.

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