REVIEW: REACH FOR THE DREAM BY ANNE MCCULLAGH RENNIE

REACH FOR THE DREAM

Author: Anne McCullagh Rennie
Michael Joseph RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

9781921901942

The first chapter of Reach for the Dream is a cracker. A bushfire, a tragedy and two young children left without a mother and a home, and with a lifetime of terrible memories. Reach for the Dream is Anne McCullogh Rennie’s latest family drama and it’s full of jealousy, tragedy, thwarted romance, betrayal, disappointments and manipulative characters. It’s the first book I’ve read by this author.

The central character is Alice Ferguson, who at eight years old loses her mother and baby brother in horrific circumstances. She and her other brother, Ben, are sent to live with their father’s sister, Bea, in a tiny town; their father tells them he will build them a “palace in the black soil plains”, so they hold on to the dream of a new life that will once again be filled with “laughter and sunshine and happiness”.

Of course, things don’t quite work out that way; Thomas is happy enough to leave his children in the care of Bea and only returns sporadically before finding a new wife. At Billabrin, Alice has to face the hostility of her cousin, Katie, who resents this newcomer, and can’t help but notice the bitterness Bea’s husband, Ray, feels towards Thomas for shirking his responsibilities. Alice’s confidence is threatened repeatedly by school bullies, Katie, and other losses, but despite multiple setbacks, she never loses touch with her dream of producing wool on her own property. As an adult, Alice falls in desperately in love with Robert, only to lose him to Katie, and moves to England where she starts anew, though never quite letting go of her love or dreams.

While the first chapter was enough to reel me in, the rest of the novel didn’t quite live up to my expectations for a number of reasons. Reach for the Dream is a long novel that chronicles Alice’s journey into adulthood, complete with the heartbreak of first love – a story that eventually comes full circle. I did find some sections more interesting than others – Alice’s determination to forge a career despite societal expectations was one; her effort, later in the story, to build her dream property was another. However, it seemed that there was more focus on the terrible things that happened to Alice in her life, than on the actual mechanics of life on the land. A pity, because I’d have liked more focus on that. Instead, I found myself comparing the novel to a soap opera; one bad thing happened after another to Alice and it became a bit too much for me in the end. I already felt like she’d had a bad beginning, but then I just thought, “enough is enough”.

The other issue I had was with characterisation. From the start Alice is set up as the nice one, the good girl, the one who bears the brunt of life’s hard knocks, but whose courage and determination gets her through. Katie, in contrast, is set up as a scheming, conniving woman who will do whatever it takes to get her own way … and make Alice’s life a misery. This sharp contrast is one of the things that bothered me about this novel. For example, Katie “went out of her way to be as sweet and malleable as possible … Robert was utterly confused by her uncharacteristic behaviour” but Alice punishes herself with work, is filled with self-doubt and tortures herself. Both feel fear, but Alice reacts with guilt while Katie reacts with manipulative behaviour. It didn’t feel balanced and after a while it irritated me that Alice seemed so ‘perfect’.

Overall, Reach for the Dream didn’t quite hit the spot for me and left me with mixed feelings. I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but in the end I found it to be an “okay” read. Some parts I really quite liked, others frustrated me. However, if lengthy family sagas are your thing, you might have an entirely different experience. That’s the thing about reading – we can all read the same book but our experiences will be different. Let me know how you go.

Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. My copy was courtesy of Penguin Books Australia.

Bookish treat: I feel a yearning for scones.