Book Review: Whistling Women

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Thank you NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for sending a copy of Kelly Romo’s novel, Whistling Women.  Set against an uncommon backdrop of 1935 San Diego, this book will whisk you away quickly and effortlessly.

I use the word ‘uncommon’ because Addie Bates is a member of a nudist colony.  The Sleepy Valley Nudist Colony is an effective place to hide from one’s past, and Addie has done just that for 15 years.  While Addie has managed to save a fortune on clothing, she has also struggled with a wildly complicated past and an unwavering desire to make amends with her estranged sister.

You might wonder how someone winds up in a nudist colony for so many years, but once you delve into Addie’s tale, it makes perfect sense.  Finding herself in a Kansas facility called the “Logsdon Orphan Asylum and Home for Friendless Children” as a child because her relatives could not care for her, Addie spends a great deal of time wishing that her sister Wavey would rescue her.   Her dreams are answered one day when she’s notified via post that her now pregnant sister has sent for her, and Addie will leave the orphan asylum to live with Wavey and her husband in San Diego.  1917 promises to be a wonderful new start for Addie, and it’s all she can do to contain her excitement.

Life with Wavey and Ty is not, however, ideal in any sense.  Without divulging too much, it quickly becomes clear that this is a situation that both Addie and Wavey need to exit.  Immediately.  Unfortunately, not only does Addie’s new home life prove unlivable, but the conditions escalate until she is forced to commit a crime.  Her run begins.  Cue the safe haven that doubles as a nudist colony.

While the colony was an effective hiding place for many years, the time comes for the Sleepy Valley Nudist Colony to participate in a “Garden of Eden” exhibition during the 1935 World Fair in San Diego.  Addie attempts to avoid the excursion, but the leader of the colony is not to be trifled with, and Addie therefore sets out with her group to visit the warm climate and the home of her sister.  Addie desperately wishes to see Wavey so that they can move beyond the crime of old, but she knows in her heart that her sister will not be willing to meet.

This is when we are introduced to my two favorite characters: Mary (18) and Rumor (16).  Mary and Rumor are Wavey’s children, and they are essentially raising themselves while their mother grapples with sobriety and absenteeism. Mary, the eldest, will steal your heart with her unflappable wish to marry a movie star.  Her insistence on calling her younger sister “darling” rather than her actual name is both endearing and hysterical (it never got old for me). Rumor, on the other hand, is our resident rebel.  Even at 16 years old, she knows her mind and spirit, and will call her mother out for poor behavior until Wavey finally smartens up (this is no small feat, for the girls’ mother is a complete disaster).  When Rumor by chance discovers that they have an Aunt who’s in town as part of a nudist exhibition, her campaign begins to get the two sisters together.  Not to be deterred by her mother who wants to leave the subject alone, Rumor starts investigating, and dragging her poor sister along for the ride.  While I adored Mary and all of her prissy characteristics, Rumor became the star of the story for me.  Her spunk and intelligence stole the show chapter after chapter.

Once Rumor starts digging, this is where the page-burning commences.  What was Addie’s crime?  What will Wavey do when she discovers that her sister is back in San Diego?  Will the sisters reunite?  Why does Wavey forbid her daughters from seeing her second husband, whom they know as “Papa?”  Is Rumor finding romance?  How far will people go to protect their beloved family members?

And what in the world will become of that nudist colony?

Seamlessly moving back and forth through time, Kelly Romo paints a picture of pain and devotion.  There are portions of this book that are difficult to get through – I can’t avoid making that point.  It’s what lies beyond those moments that will keep you reading.  Sometimes a story’s darkest moments are the ones that pave the way to redemption, and self forgiveness.

Overall, what I liked best about Whistling Women was the fact that while these women might have been damaged, their inherent courage always simmered at the surface.  Strength of spirit might ebb and flow, but love can transcend anything. I finished this novel a few days ago, and I now miss Addie, Wavey, Rumor and Mary terribly.  If I had my way, Kelly Romo would write a sequel to this novel so that we could see what becomes of Rumor and her heart of gold.  I would be one of the first in line to get a copy.

Rumor never cared much for any of the forbidden words, such as prohibited, off limits, do not touch, no trespassing, stay off, stay away, or don’t open until Christmas.  Nobody liked to be told they couldn’t do something, especially not Rumor.  (p. 220)

4 stars for Whistling Women by Kelly Romo.

Literary Hoarders Elizabeth