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Review: Sisters Of Freedom by Mary Anne O’Connor

Sisters Of Freedom
Mary Anne O’Connor
Harlequin AUS
2021, 350p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Sydney, Christmas, 1901. Federation has been achieved but Australian women are yet to gain the right to vote in their new nation’s elections and have a say in the laws that govern them.

Bolshy, boisterous Frankie Merriweather is a fervent advocate for women’s rights, determined to dedicate herself to the cause, never marrying or becoming a mother. She can’t understand her artistic sister Ivy, who wants a life of ease and beauty with her soon-to-be fiance, law student Patrick Earle.

Meanwhile, their married sister Aggie volunteers in an orphanage, decrying the inequality of Australia’s social classes … and longing to hold a baby in her arms.

When an accident takes Ivy, wounded and ill, into the violent and lawless zone of the Hawkesbury River, a year of change begins. Ivy’s burgeoning friendship with her saviour Riley Logan, a smuggler, and his sister, the poverty-stricken but valiant Fiona, will alter the lives of all three women forever.

I really enjoyed this story, set in an interesting time in Australia’s history, where the nation was being granted independence as its own country (despite there already being occupants when the English arrived), but still tied to the British Empire. Also, women were pushing for the right to vote and a large portion of the story revolves around this fight.

Of the three sisters, middle sister Frankie is the most fervent advocate for women’s rights. Although beautiful, she pays no attention to her looks and seems most adamant in not attracting a man, because she never wants to marry and become beholden to someone else. Women can’t own property, cannot work after marrying, are forced by their husbands to do whatever the husband wishes and it’s still legal for a man to physically ‘reprimand’ his wife and also enforce marital rights. Frankie doesn’t want any of this and for her, the best way to ensure that is to never marry. And to never have children. This sometimes puts her at odds with youngest sister Ivy who just wants to find a husband, have a family and be content. She doesn’t have the drive that her sister does and sometimes Frankie makes her feel silly or inferior, because her wants are more simple. For oldest sister Aggie, she’s somewhere in the middle, both longing for a family and supporting women’s rights.

I spent a couple of years living in Western Sydney, near the Hawkesbury River, so I really enjoyed the fact that this novel took us a part of the way up that river, around the areas of Wiseman’s Ferry. Back at this time, there were no roads to this part of the world, a boat was the only way to reach the settlements that had sprung up along the river. The people living there mostly fished or logged and presented in this story, it’s a mix that includes some more unsavoury characters. When smuggler Riley Logan discovers Ivy Merriweather unconscious in the river, he’s aware that if someone else spots her, she could be in a lot of danger so he whisks her up river to his sister Fiona. They nurse her back to health after a violent fever and this innocent interaction makes Ivy question the life she thought she’d mapped out for herself. She has grown up quite wealthy and privileged, with parents that care for her and her sisters with the freedom to speak their minds, study and learn, see themselves worthy of respect. For Fiona, her life has been quite different since she and Riley lost their parents and now she’s married to a lazy drunk, has young twins and another on the way, living in a shack with whispers of even rougher treatment. Ivy’s eyes are opened in a lot of ways, both by Fiona…and by Riley.

I enjoyed how different all three sisters were – Aggie was already married and wanting to be a mother. Frankie was not married and never wanted to get married, nor have children. She wanted to study law (forbidden) and play cricket and do anything that men could do. She shunned anything to do with fashion and looks and romance and seems surprised when a young man indicates to her that some are still interested, despite her attempts to discourage it. When Frankie does find herself having feelings for someone, it’s in a situation that brings her pain and frustration as well as fear of hurting someone very close to her. This was a bit of a complex situation but I thought it was handled well, particularly as the person she fell for and the one she feared hurting had not really interacted all that much and seemed more drawn to the idea of being together rather than each other. And Ivy, the youngest, was so fun and sort of frivolous, but not in a bad way. She appreciated pretty things and I think often felt inferior to her more intelligent sisters, especially Frankie. She was very artistic, perhaps a little shallow but once she spent time with Riley and Fiona and Fiona’s children, I think she saw a different side of life and also came to realise that she did have something to offer, that there was a way for her to contribute. Riley was interesting too, he’s this sort of….good guy doing bad things for the better of those that can’t get what they need. He’s protective of Ivy when he rescues her but without restricting her. He doesn’t want to coddle her, just make sure that no one can hurt her. He also wants her to be her own person, do what she wants and not what she feels is expected of her. They felt like a sweet match, like they were two that would bring out the best in each other.

This was a good blend of entertaining story in terms of romance and family relationships and the struggle for women at a time when their rights were well, almost non-existent. I always read books like this and realise how many things I tend to take for granted, living in this time in the place that I do.

8/10

Book #69 of 2021

Sisters Of Freedom is the 31st book read for the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge

It also counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, hosted by Marg @ The Intrepid Reader. It’s the 15th book read for that challenge so far.

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