Faith Sullivan's thoughtful, slow-moving novel, set in rural Minnesota in 1952, explores the conflicted loyalties of three women: 59-year-old Kate Drew, her dear friend and distant relative, Harriet McCaffery, and Kate's great-niece, Bess, a volatile teenager whom Kate and Harriet have raised from the age of 7 after the car crash that killed Bess's parents. Bess's mother, Celia, had also been orphaned in early childhood and raised by Kate and her husband, Martin. Looking back at Celia's death 10 years ago, Kate regrets not having confronted Celia's surly, hard-drinking husband long before the night that he took Celia's life and his own. Kate had lost her own husband only 8 months earlier and reasoned that putting Archer in his place was a man's job. It turns out to be just the task "that a woman must do," however, and shirking this haunts her for the rest of her life.
When the novel opens, Bess is almost grown, and Kate is intent on getting her out of town to a teachers' college in St. Cloud before she "goes bad," certain that her charge will never live down the family scandal and will instead feel compelled to live up to it. "In a little place like Harvester," as even Bess realizes, "the past never became history, but sat side by side with current events, like an old woman pushing in among the young ones, insisting on being part of things." Although Kate feels ready to say good-bye to her Bess, a second parting is threatened. Unexpectedly, her friend Harriet has become involved with a widowed farmer named Devore Weiss. While Kate anticipates a lonely future, she is able to feel happy for Harriet. But Bess, at just 17, views Harriet's new attachment as an abandonment, and shuts off her love for Harriet like the flow from a faucet.
In this story of the past's influence on the present, Faith Sullivan returns to the setting and the moral climate of her previous novels The Cape Ann and The Empress of One. The quiet rewards of the Harvester series are not immediate in the first half of What a Woman Must Do, but as the novel unfolds, readers who persist will come to understand Kate, Bess, and Harriet not as conventional country women--stock characters in American prairie fiction--but as individuals, shaped, as we all are, by memory and longing.
From Publishers Weekly
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.