#aww2019 · 2019 Reviews · Australian · historical fiction · new release

New Release Book Review: Four Respectable Ladies Seek the Meaning of Wife by Barbara Toner

Title: Four Respectable Ladies Seek the Meaning of Wifefour Respectable ladies seek meaning of wife small

Author: Barbara Toner

Published: April 2nd 2019

Publisher: Penguin Books Australia

Pages: 352

Genres: Fiction, Historical

RRP: $32.99

Rating: 4 stars

A hilarious and heart-warming novel about the true meaning of ‘for better or worse’ – both in marriage and in friendship.

‘Marriage isn’t always a bed of roses. And there are many ways to be a wife,’ the vicar informs the town … 

It’s 1930, and as the Depression overtakes rural New South Wales, what it means to be a wife tests the four respectable ladies of Prospect to their very limit.

Louisa Worthington fled to the city ten years ago, pregnant, poor and under a cloud of scandal. Now she’s back – blonde and brazen – with her heart set on the married son of the town’s mayor.

Adelaide Nightingale, newly widowed and starved of romance, yearns for adoration, security and a version of herself defined by beauty not business.

Maggie Albright dreams of empire building, but is hamstrung by her over-cautious husband, who grows less handsome by the day.

Then there’s Pearl Fletcher, happily married to Joe, the district’s most successful sheep farmer, but protecting a secret that could tear their family apart.

And hovering in the town’s shadows is a ghost from their past. A man newly released from jail ruthlessly bent on exploiting the ladies’ hopes and fears to get what he wants. And what he wants is Louisa . . .


Australian author Barbara Toner is back, with the follow on to last year’s hit novel, Four Respectable Ladies Seek Part-Time Husband. The new title and sequel is, Four Respectable Ladies Seek the Meaning of Wife. This is a really interesting question  – and the unfolding story explores marriage, spousal expectations, love, life and the confines of the Great Depression era, from a rural Australian perspective. Fans of the previous book, as well as the writer Rosalie Ham, will appreciate all this novel has to offer.

We all know marriage isn’t easy, it is hard work to cultivate. For the four respectable ladies of Prospect, a tiny rural setting in New South Wales, every day brings a new challenge in the marriage department. These are hard times, for the country and the world at large, dealing with the grips of the Depression. To be a spouse, both a wife and husband, is tough. The women of Prospect know how hard it can be. While one of the foursome returns home after fleeing to the city in disgrace,  she now has her sights set on a much revered man of the town. Meanwhile, another finds herself coping with being a new widow. One has big aspirations –  she hopes to build something exciting on the business front, but her plans seem to be hampered by her husband. The last of the foursome is harbouring a huge secret from her own spouse. As each of these women in turn deal with their individual set of problems in the love, life and marriage department, another vexing problem arrives, testing each to their limits.

It was a nice feeling, a little like reunion with family members when I opened up Four Respectable Ladies Seek the Meaning of Wife to begin my reading journey. Again, I was struck by the fabulous and very catchy title Barbara Toner has applied to the sequel to her 2018 release. It was great to reconnect with many of the characters from the first novel, to see how they had progressed or regressed, and meet some new faces. There are plenty of fresh townsfolk for the reader to meet as they work their way through the pages of this novel.

For me, the best feature of Four Respectable Ladies Seek the Meaning of Wife is the fabulous and very well drawn Australian rural setting. I loved Toner’s recreation of Prospect, a tiny rural township located in New South Wales. I felt like a member of this town from the moment in stepped into this novel and it was a nice feeling. Toner also produces some excellent world building, highlighting the issues at stake from a remote setting dealing with the impact of the great depression. It certainly opened up my eyes to the devastation experienced by the Australian rural community at this time. Not only were financial issues at stake, but many were faced with extra pressures on their families, marriage, business connections, livelihoods, friendships and community relations. It was such a hard point in time, but I am glad Toner was able to vividly recreate this period for readers such as myself, to develop a greater understanding of what our previous generations endured.

Although there are some serious aspects to Four Respectable Ladies Seek the Meaning of Wife, there is a wonderfully dark satirical tone, with some gentle undercurrents of humour to keep the reader in check. I think this is a great balance and Toner appears to have further refined this style of writing in her latest novel. There were times where I had a little chuckle at the events and the behaviours of the Prospect community. I particularly enjoyed the dressmaking sequences. There was a definite sense of jest and invention that accompanies many of the sequences in this novel, which works to offset the hard times experienced by the women and their community.

If you are after a great sketch of Australia in times past, Four Respectable Ladies Seek the Meaning of Wife is a fabulous place to explore early twentieth century Australia. Toner’s use of a split style of narration of four very different women undergoing shared experiences, makes for a compelling read. While this novel was wrapped up nicely, I would be interested to see where Barbara Toner travels next.

Four Respectable Ladies Seek the Meaning of Wife by Barbara Toner was published on 2nd April 2019 by Penguin Books Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of Four Respectable Ladies Seek the Meaning of Wife, Barbara Toner, visit here.

*I wish to thank Penguin Books Australia for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.

Four Respectable Ladies Seek the Meaning of Wife is book #105 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge


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