cover image What a Woman Must Do

What a Woman Must Do

Faith Sullivan. Random House (NY), $23.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-375-50390-0

In keeping with her tradition of creating strong heroines, Sullivan (The Cape Ann) casts three generations of hardy smalltown Minnesota women in an empathetic post-WWII drama. A careless ""Way Back When"" filler in the local Harvester, Minn., newspaper notes the 10th anniversary of the tragic deaths of Archer and Celia Canby, which elicits both sadness and outrage in Celia's aunt, Kate Drew. Prematurely aged by arthritis and her family's misfortunes, 59-year-old Kate first experienced heartbreak when her sister and brother-in-law died of influenza in 1917, leaving their young daughter, Celia, in the care of Kate and husband Martin. Against their strong wishes, Celia married Archer, a handsome but abusive Southern expatriate with a withered arm, when she was in her teens. Just months after Martin's untimely death of a heart attack, Celia and Archer were killed in an accident and their seven-year-old daughter was orphaned. With the live-in help of cousin Harriet McCaffery, Kate raised little Bess into a headstrong teenager. Bess repeats her mother's romantic mistake in a risky dalliance with a married man, threatening her plans for college. When 39-year-old Harriet decides to pursue a newly widowed farmer in hopes of married domestic bliss, all three women must examine their tangled pasts, free themselves from their dependence on one another and embrace new, independent futures. Repetitive reminiscing that always leads back to star-crossed Celia and Archer slows down the first third of the novel, but once spoiled, insecure Bess and hopelessly romantic Harriet are ensconced in their respective games of the heart, the pages can't turn fast enough. Sullivan is a good storyteller and the peaceful, rural backdrop she sketches stands in poignant contrast to her sympathetic characters' struggles with temptation and conflicting loyalties. 4-city author tour with Amy Bloom. (July)