Two Portraits of Everyday 20th Century Women

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I’ve read a number of stories recently featuring, well, unremarkable women really. Perhaps they are unremarkable, but they are certainly not forgettable. These women are ordinary women, living through their fairly ordinary lives, and all within the 20th century. Earlier, I read Nora Webster, by Colm Toíbín. A quiet, unassuming read made all the better I felt by the narration by Fiona Shaw. I read that much earlier and the separate review of that book can be found here. (There are a great number of others as well, and for certain I will guide you to read On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry and  The Age of Hope by David Bergen.)

A few months ago I read a highly anticipated Academy Street by Mary Costello, and like Nora Webster, it was a quiet read as well. Here again is an ordinary life of a woman as she comes of age, first in childhood in Ireland and adulthood in America. Tess lives most of her adult life on Academy Street and it is a quiet and unassuming journey we are taken on. It is however, not an ordinary read, for I felt Academy Street was one of the most profoundly beautiful story, even though Tess’ life was an achingly sad one.

The one most recently listened to was The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant. My gushing love for it will be included below. Here, again, we are taken on a journey through the life of Addie Baum, another unassuming life, but one that could not have been more charming or enjoyable. I’ve finished The Boston Girl and now feel as though I’ve lost my best friend.

Below are my thoughts on the two recent stories of a type of story that firmly features often in my world of books most enjoyed. There is just something offered in these stories for me that continue to see me reach for them, and also to be so very thankful to the authors that continue to create and imagine these lovely lives of these women. There are a few noted above that hold a special spot in my heart just as Academy Street and The Boston Girl will now.


“Academy Street is the heart-breaking and evocative story of one woman’s life spanning six decades. Tess’s childhood in 1940’s rural Ireland is defined by the sudden death of her mother. Later, in New York, she encounters the ferocious power and calamity of love, and the effects of catastrophic fate. The novel resonates with the rhythms of memory and home as well as those of America’s greatest city. This is an intimate story about unexpected gifts and unbearable losses, and the perpetual ache for belonging. It is exquisitely written and profoundly moving.”

While Academy Street may only be 179 pages in length, and uses somewhat simplistic writing with short sentences, it will reach deep into you and pull out strongly felt emotions. Tess Lohan is for the most part a lonely girl who loses all will to talk at one point, after her mother dies. Her life story is one filled with melancholy but for some reason, makes it one of the most wonderful stories I’ve read this year. A review on Goodreads by Rebecca Foster says that Academy Street is the book she wished Toíbín had written for Nora Webster. I very much agree and think this is a wonderful way to summarize my thoughts as well on Tess and Academy Street.

Even though Costello writes with short and fairly non-descriptive sentences, there is something very powerful about her writing which causes you to slowly savour her words. They are mesmerizing in their sadness and melancholic tone. Tess is this profoundly awkward woman that is steeped in loneliness and discomfort in any social surrounding. Even later, at the part of the story when we learn of her pregnancy, it reads with incredible sadness. The relationship she then has with her son, Theo, is one also filled with awkwardness, silence and despair. It’s truly a heartbreaking story, a heartbreaking and painfully sad life, but again, I can only say it was a highly emotional and profound read. We follow Tess from her life in Ireland to the one she has in America in this slim book, but in all honestly, I read it slowly and took my time with it. It was one of the most absorbing and compelling stories I’ve read, and while it may appear short and simple, it was anything but those things. 4.5 stars. Thank you to Canongate Books for sending this, along with Costello’s short story collection, The China Factory. A collection I am longing to get to very soon.

Boston Girl








Oh, The Boston Girl. I was supposed to be listening to a different audiobook, but after hearing Hoarder Elizabeth rave about Linda Lavin’s narration for The Boston Girl and seeing it pop up as available from our library, I decided to hop on it instead. Well, couldn’t I be the happiest person ever for making that wise decision. Elizabeth’s review of The Boston Girl can be found here. She’s packed a lot in there so you’ll certainly be getting a good dose of what the story holds. It’s wonderful. And, we share the same opinion, so if you’re looking for opposing views, sorry, you won’t find it here. ;-)

Now, I’ve seen those reviews that chastise Diamant for writing a somewhat simplistic story, using simplistic writing, but I will only say to you that if you’ve had the distinct, yes the distinct and divine pleasure of getting your hands on the audiobook, Linda Lavin’s narration for The Boston Girl will only delight and charm you to no end. Her narration most certainly enhances the reading experience to high levels. Like Hoarder Elizabeth said about Lavin’s narration…it is almost as if Diamant wrote this story specifically for Lavin.

Linda became Addie Baum. When Addie took you into her confidence, she would read with a conspiratorial whisper, when she was recalling fondly a happy moment in her life, you could hear her smile, you certainly smiled right alongside her, when she confided in you about the sad moments in her life, you could hear the tears in her voice and you wiped your own tears. In short…she was amazing. Fantastically amazing, and if Linda Lavin is not nominated for an Audie Award, I will hunt those judges down and pelt them with rotten eggs. I think that is exactly what Addie Baum would do. Or, if anything she would say she would want to do that.

Here again, we are treated to the life of an ordinary woman in The Boston Girl, just as we were in Academy Street.  Addie is reflecting on her life story when she is at the age of 85 to her granddaughter. She has led a somewhat ordinary life, born to immigrant parents in 1900 and navigating a time when she was hungry for a college education but when it wasn’t really in the cards for young women of that era. Yet, as everyday or ordinary as her life may seem, I was gobbling up her stories, especially those about the sad and miserable relationship she had with her mother, and I cried when her beloved sister tragically dies, laughed when she remembered the antics and events she was involved in with her friends and cheered her on when she demanded attention and fought for herself in the times when she needed to put up a fight. Addie is a wonderful feminist and probably is so without her really knowing she was at the time. I adored my every moment with Addie, and a great deal of the reason why is owed to Linda Lavin. Like I mentioned above, I feel now as though I’ve lost my best friend. My time hearing Addie’s story has come to an end and I’m a bit beside myself because of that.

Literary Hoarders Penny rev