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Lemons in the Garden of Love
Ames Sheldon, author

It’s 1977 and Cassie Lyman, a graduate student in women’s history, is struggling to find a topic for her doctoral dissertation. When she discovers a trove of drawings, suffrage cartoons, letters, and diaries at Smith College belonging to Kate Easton, founder of the Birth Control League of Massachusetts in 1916, she believes she has located her subject.

Digging deeper into Kate’s life, Cassie learns that she and Kate are related―closely. Driven to understand why her family has never spoken of Kate, Cassie travels to Cape Ann to attend her sister’s shotgun wedding, where she questions her female relatives about Kate―only to find herself soon afterward in the same challenging situation Kate faced.

Sheldon (Don’t Put the Boats Away) transports readers to 1977 through the eyes of Cassie Reed Lyman, a PhD student in Women’s History at the University of Minnesota, in this novel that’s part feminist history, part journey of self-discovery. While searching Smith College’s archives for guidance toward a dissertation topic, Cassie stumbles upon the diaries of her great-great-aunt, Kate Reed Easton. Cassie is immediately hooked, diving into journal entries covering Kate’s work as a suffragist, birth control advocate, and artist in the first half of the twentieth century. Sheldon models Kate’s experiences on the real life of Blanche Ames Ames, the artist and activist, and skillfully weaves past and present together. Sheldon sets Cassie’s efforts to face the family skeletons unearthed by her research, plus navigate fraught relationships with her husband and her mother, all against the backdrop of preparations for her sister’s shotgun wedding. Sheldon creates a moving portrait of the struggles and successes of first- and second-wave feminism.

Aside from minor editing issues, Sheldon’s evocative prose and compelling sense of the sweep of history grabs attention from page one right up until the final chapter, which rushes to a premature conclusion lacking the nuance of earlier pages. Careful research infuses the story, which abounds with surprising detail, though Sheldon glosses over the strain of eugenics that underpinned much early birth control advocacy, a lacuna made more obvious given Margaret Sanger’s many cameos throughout.

Sheldon’s relatable and emotional saga serves as a stark lesson about women’s lives before the right to reproductive freedom was achieved. Some will be put off by Kate’s scathing criticism of the Catholic Church’s injunctions against birth control, but readers invested in history, women’s rights, and cross-generational family sagas will find that Lemons in the Garden reveals the life-changing power of a woman’s right to determine her reproductive future.

Takeaway: Ames Sheldon brings two waves of the women’s movement to life in this compelling work of historical fiction.

Great for fans of: Fiona Davis’s The Lions of Fifth Avenue, Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: B-