Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Connie Carter has lost everyone and everything dear to her. Leaving her home in New York, she moves to a run-down Irish mansion, hoping to heal her shattered heart and in search of answers: how could her husband do the terrible things he did? And why did he plough all their money into the dilapidated Ludlow Hall before he died, without ever telling her?
At first Connie tries to avoid the villagers, until she meets local women Eve and Hetty who introduce her to the Ludlow Ladies’ Society, a crafts group in need of a permanent home. Connie soon discovers Eve is also struggling with pain and the loss of having her beloved Ludlow Hall repossessed by the bank and sold off. Now, seeing the American Connie living there, the hurt of losing everything is renewed. Can these women ever be friends? Can they ever understand or forgive?
As the Ludlow Ladies create memory quilts to remember those they have loved and lost, the secrets of the past finally begin to surface. But can Connie, Eve and Hetty stitch their lives back together?
Last year was the first time I had read anything by Irish author Ann O'Loughlin. The Judge's Wife was her second book and although I enjoyed the story it wasn't the best book I had ever read and honestly I didn't understand what all the fuss was about it and why people loved it so much. Now along comes The Ludlow Ladies Society and I hold my hands up and admit I was completely wrong in my opinions regarding Ann's writing and suffice to say I more than get what the fuss and acclaim is all about and all I want to do is add to it and wax lyrical about such a brilliant book that deeply affected me. It proves beyond all doubt for me that when people say give things another chance, that this statement is more than true and I am so glad I gave Ann's books another go for if I hadn't it, such a special book would have passed me by and that would have been a real shame. I know for sure come the end of the year I will still remember this book and it's wonderful cast of characters and the way the themes were dealt with and explored. In the notes before the story begins the author mentions how she was inspired by the sewing and patchwork quilt she made with her own mother and this deep connection and love she felt with her mother is felt throughout the book as the ladies in the society united over making several quilts. Each woman has their own purpose for making a quilt and through this process they begin to heal and come to some form of acceptance given all that has happened in their lives.
I was a bit apprehensive about reading this book given my previous misgivings surrounding the author's last book but thankfully they were easily quashed within the first chapter and I found myself settling into the story quite quickly. There just seemed to be a lovely flow about it, there was a nice pace and there wasn't endless characters being introduced. I've found in several books I have read recently that too many characters are flung at the reader without the reader being given the chance to get to know them and the inner workings of their hearts and minds. In this book there are a group of women to get to know with prominence given to three main characters with each of them having their own harrowing story to tell. One would think given the nature of the book with sewing at its centre that this would be your average chick-lit book so to speak with stitching and bitching where a group of ladies gather to express their woes and get things off their chest. What a relief to discover this wasn't the case at all and it was evident fairly on there was depth and substance to all aspects of the story. One thing I will admit is I prefer the cover I received with all the little pins in various colours on it in comparison to the lady in the water but that is just personal preference and didn't take away from my overall enjoyment of the book. Having finished the book I can see why the above cover was chosen as it ties in so well with the overall storyline and some important scenes.
The writing throughout this book was just beautiful, so raw and honest and there were endless quotes I wished to take down and keep and look back on. I identified the most with American Connie Carter recently arrived in Rosdaniel, Co. Wicklow to look at a property she never knew existed yet somehow it seems to have been left to her. Connie is deeply hurt and totally lost in an all encompassing grief and boy did I feel every bit of her pain, desperation, agony, sorrow and also anger. 'Every day she felt the gouge of pain, as raw as when it was first delivered, the intensity of loss strangling her.' Such raw, heartfelt emotions radiated from the pages from Connie for the vast majority of the story and I understood every bit of it and so will many people. That's not to say the author made this story all doom and gloom. In fact it was far from it and proved with time and a good support system and something to bond and connect over, grief will never fully leave us but maybe become just that small bit more easier to deal with.
Acceptance I feel is another thing altogether and far more challenging to come by. 'Loss once rooted never dies, pain flares and swells at its own bidding'. These simple few words say so much and ring so very very true. The full reasons behind Connie's grief don't become fully apparent until much later in the book and when it was revealed it was just so shocking and desperately sad that sympathy does not even sum up how I felt for her. OK so there was a certain aspect to her storyline that made me for a short while re-evaluate what I had thought of her but then I thought no I am being too rash and in fact this element although it did come out of nowhere I can accept it given all that Connie had been through. After all if this is how Connie feels every day it's a wonder she can make it through the days. 'Loss streaked through her, making her bend over, the pain clouding her, seeping into her brain, consuming every part of her'. Connie decides to take the hall off the market and stay in Rossdaniel but will the locals like this given Ludlow Hall holds such a firm place in their hearts.
For Eve Brannigan she too is coping with her own loss and the happy days she spent as matriarch of Ludlow Hall and married to Arnold are but a distant memory. Towards the end, times were not so good and yes the memories may have become tainted but still she longs with all her might to live back at the hall. The little house where she now lives and runs a small sewing business is not the same. When she hears an American has taken up residency at the hall she wonders is that it? Will her dreams never become a reality? Eve like many of the characters was far older than Connie yet they were connected by each having experienced loss. Eve was a fantastic character. I felt she was strong and was able to weather the storm and that there was love out there for right under her nose if she was willing to let go of the past and embrace it.
The third woman we focus on is local b&b owner Hetty Gorman. She too enjoys sewing and quilt making, and like Connie and Eve is dealing with the death of her husband, but perhaps she is facing her loss in a different way. I felt there was a great sense of relief on Hetty's part but she was guilty for feeling this. The circumstances behind everyone's loss is different and I think if she told the truth she would feel very exposed and that people would judge her all too readily. As the reader comes to understand what is going through her head I could see why she was so reluctant to share everything as know truly knows what goes on in someone's life once the doors have been shut on the world. Outside appearances and personas can be very deceptive and it's easy for people to put on a show or a façade but at some point the cracks have to show and a weight needs to be lifted. A problem shared is a problem halved.
For years the sewing group had met at Ludlow Hall but once Eve had no choice but to leave the group was forced to meet in living rooms throughout the village. Now that Connie is back and opening up the hall they wonder is it too much to ask could the ladies meet there. They have a huge task ahead as three quilts are being made for a festival and if they win they get to meet Michelle Obama. As much space as possible is needed in order to make the best quilts possible and it's Eve who takes things in hand and approaches Connie and so the Ludlow Ladies Society is born. I enjoyed how it wasn't all plain sailing for the group and that Connie didn't automatically slip into a role within the group so readily. She kept her distance and remained in her own little world of sorrow but bit by bit all the ladies unite and bond over the various patches and their shared grief and in doing so they learn to let in the light, to calm the grief, understand the pain and deal with the all consuming guilt and anger. 'You should snatch happiness whenever it comes knocking, otherwise you will regret it.'
It may seem that this story was a difficult read and it was in some senses of the word it was but dotted throughout were moments of light relief placed at just the most apt of times. They were almost like little reminders that rays of sunshine can appear in the most difficult of times. The ladies participating in Connie's dance classes brought tears of laughter to my eyes but perhaps one of the best things about the books were the emails. These emails from the chairwoman of The Ludlow Ladies Society -Kathryn Rodgers were hilarious and if the book had just been these emails alone that would have made me perfectly happy so on point were they? Maybe Kathyrn deserves a full book of her own? She was so blunt and wasn't afraid to say anything for fear it would upset someone. If it needed to be said Kathryn was the person to do it and I looked forward to reading these tongue in check emails whenever they cropped up in the book.
I am so thankful I decided to read more from Ann O'Loughlin because there is sometimes you just 'get' a book and with this one I really did. It really blew me away. There are so many levels to it and I relished every moment of such an exceptional, compelling story. It deserves to top the best sellers list and I'll be keeping an eye on it's progress with much interest.
Many thanks to Black and White Publishing for my copy of The Ludlow Ladies Society to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.