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The Wartime Sisters

Review

The Wartime Sisters

With thoughtful and contemplative storytelling and a nod to women’s rights, author Lynda Cohen Loigman weaves a tale of sisterhood, resentment and World War II in THE WARTIME SISTERS.

Beginning in 1919 Brooklyn, Cohen introduces Jewish siblings Ruth and Millie, who could not be more different. Quiet and intelligent, Ruth feels that she is no match for her younger sister’s beauty and charm, and her feelings of resentment start to grow from the moment the curly-headed baby is brought home. As the years pass, Ruth continues to feel pushed aside, with their own mother expressing a clear favoritism for Millie with her bouncy charm and fortuitously good looks. It is clear that the girls have very little in common from the beginning, but what truly sets them apart is their mother’s insistence that Millie will marry well --- a Rockefeller, ideally --- and the unprovoked attention Millie receives from all the men around them, including, on several occasions, Ruth’s own dates.

Alternating between two timelines, Cohen then takes us to the year 1942. Millie and her young son have just arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts, to join her sister at the armory where she, her husband and their twin daughters live. Millie’s own husband disappeared in the war, and she is in dire need of a fresh start. But with decades of resentment and feelings of inadequacy simmering between her and Ruth, it will take more than an address change to bring them together.

"While the armory is an important and necessary presence in both women’s lives, THE WARTIME SISTERS is not your typical World War II novel.... Loigman brilliantly captures the dynamics that take hold of sisters, especially when they are very different."

Weaving together both timelines and various vignettes into the girls’ complicated relationship, Cohen demonstrates a keen understanding of the bonds of sisterhood --- and all of its ins and outs. In Brooklyn, we watch as Ruth is spurned again and again by her suitors in favor of Millie. Understandably, these painful events begin to color Ruth’s own impression of her sister, and when she finally finds a man who is perfect for her, she can dream of nothing more than getting away from her glamorous sister, their overbearing mother and the neighborhood’s clear preference for Millie.

At the same time, Millie, too, struggles with feelings of inadequacy. Known as the gorgeous but not so bright sister, Millie often feels judged and criticized by Ruth. When she finally does choose a man to settle down with, she chooses poorly. Her husband, Lenny, ends up being much more of a talker than a provider, and it is clear that their marriage was rocky, even before he left for the war.

At the Springfield Armory, life starts flourishing for both sisters. Ruth is a respected member of her community, and her bookkeeping work keeps her mind sharp and her hands busy. Millie, meanwhile, has become a bit more refined over the years, and although she is nervous, she, too, begins to work at the armory. Still reeling from her complicated marriage, she starts taking pride in her work and role in the community and feeling complete in a way her beauty never made her feel. Unfortunately, there is still a ton of lingering resentment between the sisters --- and it only grows as Millie begins to make more friends with the other officers’ wives, namely Lillian, the number one hostess of the small group of women.

Interestingly, Cohen also gives us a look into Lillian’s mind, and it is a refreshing twist to see the sisters --- particularly Millie --- through the eyes of someone else. Lillian knows nothing of the sisters’ past, and thus she can give readers a more thorough look at each. In Ruth, she sees someone who needs to come out of her shell, but who is also kind, loyal and dependable. In Millie, she sees someone who is suffering and needs the support of her fellow women. Luckily, Millie soon finds this support in Arietta, an Italian-American chef/singer who proves to be one of the highlights of the novel, providing the perfect lightness for a book so heavy with pain and trauma.

With tension that is palpable on every page, THE WARTIME SISTERS is a compelling and heartfelt look at sisterhood and the pains of comparisons between two wildly different women. The sisters’ relationship comes to a head when painful secrets are revealed from both of their pasts, and a figure long since presumed gone makes a shocking and alarming return in their lives. As their secrets come to light and they make peace with their choices --- some good, some bad --- the women must decide if their familial bonds can stand the test of time.

While the armory is an important and necessary presence in both women’s lives, THE WARTIME SISTERS is not your typical World War II novel. The war is felt on every page, but this is not a book full of battles and collateral damage. That said, I loved reading about how the women, mainly officers’ wives, lived in the armory, and the ways that they formed their own community amidst building weaponry and watching their husbands leave for the battleground.

Loigman brilliantly captures the dynamics that take hold of sisters, especially when they are very different. Her portrayals of resentment and jealousy are poignant and captivating, and I love that she shows readers how every small hurt and indiscretion can add up in a complex but believable way. Neither Ruth nor Millie is perfect or without blame, yet both are likable, relatable characters in this lovely novel. Although the book does take place between 1919 and 1943, I would say that it is World War II fiction that is perfect for readers looking for a bit less war and a bit more humanity.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 1, 2019

The Wartime Sisters
by Lynda Cohen Loigman

  • Publication Date: January 22, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250140706
  • ISBN-13: 9781250140708