Prize Women by Caroline Lea

Caroline Lea chooses such interesting subjects and settings for her novels. Her first, The Glass Woman, was a Gothic novel set in 17th century Iceland, and her second, The Metal Heart, explored the building of a chapel in the Orkney Islands by Italian prisoners of war. In her latest novel, Prize Women, she takes us to Canada in the early 20th century and introduces us to two women who are taking part in a very unusual contest: the Great Stork Derby.

When Canadian millionaire Charles Vance Millar dies in 1926, he leaves behind a very controversial will. He bequeaths shares in a brewery to a group of teetotal ministers, a house in Jamaica to three men who hate each other, jockey club stocks to anti-horse racing campaigners – and in the strangest bequest of all, he leaves a large sum of money to the Toronto woman who gives birth to the most children in a ten year period.

Lily di Marco is trapped in an unhappy marriage so when her town is hit by an earthquake, she sees a chance to escape and flees to Toronto with her young son. Arriving in the city tired and homeless, Lily meets Mae Thebault, the wife of a wealthy factory owner, who agrees to let Lily stay with them in return for helping to take care of the Thebaults’ five children. Despite their differences in background and social status, Lily and Mae quickly become close friends – but then comes the Wall Street Crash and the start of the Great Depression.

By this point Lily already has several babies who will count towards the Great Stork Derby and decides to enter the contest in the hope of winning the money and improving the lives of herself and her children. But the Thebaults’ financial situation has also changed and Mae finds herself in desperate need of money too. Soon the former best friends are competing against each other, but with the outcome due to be decided by a jury, which of the women – if either – will be declared the winner?

Lily’s story is very moving and often heartbreaking. It’s so sad to see the way she is treated by her violent, alcoholic husband, the racism and discrimination she faces due to her Italian background, the squalid, impoverished surroundings she lives in and the impact all of this has on the health and wellbeing of her children. I was in tears several times, so be prepared – this is not exactly a cheerful, uplifting read! Mae also has obstacles to overcome and suffers some personal traumas, but her story didn’t affect me the way Lily’s did and the way she behaved during the later stages of the contest annoyed me, even while I understood her reasons. Maybe because the two women end up in direct competition with each other, it makes it difficult to side with both of them at the same time.

The Great Stork Derby itself – something that really happened, by the way – is a cruel and irresponsible concept in many ways, but even more cruel were the modifications made to the will by the courts, stating that children who were stillborn or born outside of wedlock wouldn’t count. Also, there was no consideration given to the effect on women’s bodies of so many pregnancies in a short space of time, or how poor families would afford to feed so many children if they didn’t win the prize money. Naturally, the contest received a lot of media attention at the time and also caused a lot of debate around contraception and women’s rights.

I enjoyed this book, despite the sadness, and I enjoyed getting to know Lily and Mae. However, there was one aspect of their storyline that I found unconvincing and slightly contrived; it wasn’t enough to spoil the book for me, but it was the only thing I didn’t like in this otherwise excellent novel.

Thanks to Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 14/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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