Picks and Pans Review: The Ladies of Missalonghi

updated 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Colleen McCullough

The first in a new series of short novels by accomplished authors, this book looks as though it had been designed by the late Laura Ashley, with a pastel-colored cover of the three ladies of the title decked out in long dresses and picture hats. It is a small volume with eight sketches reminiscent of illustrated books from the turn of the century. Notwithstanding the clichés, McCullough fans will find her fifth work of fiction satisfying because it offers the same escapist story line as The Thorn Birds. Men, again, ultimately are reduced to the weaker sex. And none too soon in this case because the entrenched Hurlingford clan has been mistreating its womenfolk—the ones who are manless—by cheating them out of their inheritance and income. Living in pre-World War I Australia, the protagonists of the title are a crippled spinster aunt, her widowed sister and the sister's plain, unmarried 33-year-old daughter, Missy. The name of the town in the Blue Mountains where they live, Byron, suggests the heights of romantic fantasy the author aspires to. The home the three inhabit is Missalonghi, named after the place in Greece where the poet died. Missy, with the help of a glamorous spirit who appears to her, helps turn the victimized women around. And the rugged individualist whom Missy tricks into marrying her makes his bride the new power-matron of Byron. McCullough manages a few amusing scenes and those who like their fiction light with happy endings will probably not be disappointed. There's a lot of claptrap, though. Missy's husband, for example, warns her: "You'd better get used to too much happiness, my little love, because I swear I shall drown you in it." And the girl's guardian angel dismisses a haughty cousin with this bit of hot air: "What she needs is a man who will make her work very hard, and treat her like dirt." Ye Gods! (Harper & Row, $12.95)

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