The Ludlow Ladies’ Society, by Ann O’Loughlin, is a romance – one of the few genres I avoid. Bear this in mind when reading my review, especially if you are a fan of such stories. I am aware that there are many who enjoy the escapism of the happy ever after. Of all imaginative possibilities this is one I struggle to suspend reason for, even to facilitate story telling.
The tale is set in the small Irish town of Rosdaniel, County Wicklow. The town’s big house and its estate had been occupied by generations of the Brannigan family until a few years before. Financial mismanagement led to repossession and Ludlow Hall was bought by an American who subsequently died. Now his widow, Connie, has arrived hoping to discover why her husband sank their money into the property without telling her. The town still regards Ludlow Hall as the home of Eve, who was evicted by the banks when they acted to recover the debts her husband bequeathed.
Another widow in the town, Hetty, makes up the trio of women forming the backbone of the tale. All have tragic personal histories that are slowly revealed. The women come together thanks to the eponymous society that regularly meets to gossip and sew quilts. The women plan to enter their creations in a competition, the winners of which will have the opportunity to meet the American First Lady when she visits Ireland in just a few weeks time.
Eve is introduced as a seamstress who is unkindly judgemental about her clients. Finishing off the hemming on a skirt she ponders:
“Mary McGuane would hardly do it justice with her thick waist […] The red colour was too bright for a heavy woman.”
That larger woman should not be permitted to wear whatever they want did not endear Eve to me. Much later in the book Hatty appears to have similar concerns about appearance when Connie is preparing to meet an old friend:
“Last week she had gone to Arklow on Hetty’s insistence and had her hair coloured and cut.”
Given the trials and tribulations these women have suffered, and the strength they have shown in surviving and moving on, such superficial concerns diminished their supposedly supportive female friendships. After the emotional abuse their husbands subjected them to as a means of control it would have been refreshing to have them accepted just as they are.
There is much death and darkness in the story; the women have been badly used by their spouses. With this in mind I wondered why they would seek a replacement, why they would believe happiness could be found with another man. They cite love yet also recognise that they once loved those who caused them pain. This is the main flaw I find in romantic fiction, the lack of learning from experience.
The Ludlow Ladies’ Society is making quilts for the competition. When they decide the theme is to be memory they set aside their off-cuts and seek clothing donations with a personal history. Eve and Hatty in particular cut squares from high quality clothes that could have benefited others which seemed such a waste. I struggled to empathise with much of this tale.
The writing flows and the progression of the plot is well measured. The reveals maintain interest despite there being few surprises. For romance fans, especially those who enjoy crafts such as sewing, I suspect this could be an engaging read. As it was voted onto the shortlist I did my best to remain open minded but it was not a book for me.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Black & White Publishing.
The Ludlow Ladies’ Society has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.