Alice & Jean by Lily Hammond is a sensitive and beautiful historical romance novel centering on two women in love.
It’s 1946 in New Zealand, in the aftermath of World War II. Alice Holden is a mother of two young children, widowed by the devastating war, and struggling to make ends meet. Jean Reardon, a former farmhand with a reputation for her independent nature, delivers fresh milk to Alice’s home every morning. The two immediately connect, and seeing each other is the highlight of both their days. While Jean recognizes her feelings right away, Alice has never imagined that two women can fall in love and at first is confused with what her society has taught her about marriage.
As Alice begins to accept her love for Jean, and her son and daughter see their mother’s lover as a welcome addition to the family, her status as a widow puts her in a vulnerable position on two sides. Her cold, overbearing mother tries to bully Alice into moving in with her, and Jim Dempsey, son of a respected farmer, wants to marry Alice for the respect and money he’ll get from his mother-in-law, not caring that Alice wants nothing to do with him. Since both Alice’s mother and Jim are well-off in town, refusing them makes life much harder, even dangerous, for the two lovers. Others already suspect Jean’s sexuality and warn Alice against befriending her, causing more problems that each woman must tackle in order to live in peace.
The love story in Alice & Jean gives a vivid look into the women’s tender feelings for each other, yet also addresses real issues such as women’s roles and sexuality. Both women find their ways of life under scrutiny by family and neighbors; Alice for refusing Jim’s proposal, and Jean for wearing trousers instead of dresses and loving women instead of men. I was impressed with how the author balanced out moments of love between Jean and Alice with the stringent attitudes around them. I also liked how she portrayed the supporting characters. Some were completely accepting of Alice and Jean’s relationship, some were supportive but uncomfortable with the idea, and others didn’t accept them at all. Like any town or city, there were people who had different ideas about what was moral and right, and Lily Hammond showed how most of her characters were able to get past their disagreements and help each other in times of need. Only a few very unlikeable characters like Jim Dempsey and Alice’s mother, Geraldine Thomas, were the exceptions.
The plot and pacing were laid out well, and though there were a few slow scenes, I got absorbed in Jean and Alice’s story and there was a good mixture of relaxing scenes and tense buildups that drew the suspense right in and had me reading in long sittings. There were even a couple unexpected reveals I didn’t see coming. The only thing about the story I wished was better told was Jean’s past. As much of the conflict centers around Alice’s family, I got a better idea of how she grew up and what her parents were like. While there were a couple mentions of Jean’s family they were never introduced in the book, and though Jean’s already a well constructed character, I would have liked to see her family portrayed equally to Alice’s.
Other than that one issue, I really commend Lily Hammond for making Alice & Jean so entertaining and suspenseful, and of course, I highly recommend it to readers.