Bridget O’Brian, (Bridie) born 1913, is like many other women of her time – resilient, dutiful and ultimately powerless.
After the death of her mother in childbirth, Bridie and her sister Mary are cared for by their maternal aunt, Kit—herself just a girl—and a fierce and superstitious grandmother. When Granny Byrne dies the two girls are taken away from their Aunty Kit and brought to live in the convent as charity cases of the church. Their father, the beautiful, music-loving and often drunk Connor O’Brian, is forbidden to see them and they lose contact with him forever. The two little girls remain in the convent until Kit herself marries some years later and they go to live with her and her husband in south-east Queensland. Mary, who has little in common with her sister, plans to enter the church as a nun.
When, during the Great Depression, Bridie falls pregnant to the hard-working but emotionally unavailable Jack Bowden, her already narrow options diminish even further, but she marries him anyway and ‘just gets on with it’ in the small house that Jack builds on the isolated hills of Sweetmans Road in northern N.S.W. Jack is a good and hard-working man but uncommunicative and unavailable to her for emotional nourishment. Her Aunty Kit, whom she now rarely sees, is her one great ally and the object of Bridie’s unconditional love.
Bridie quietly longs for love, laughter and fulfilment but her circumstances offer her none of these. Her yearning is silent and even she is unable to identify what it is she longs for.
When her three children—Danny, 15, Louise, 13 and Maddie, 10—are doing well in school, Bridie becomes increasingly restless. She broaches the possibility of getting a job of some sort but Jack forbids this on the grounds that it would shame him to have his wife go out to work.
By chance, Bridie meets Jacob Elliot, a returned soldier and now reclusive artist who lives in one of the timber huts up the top of Sweetmans Road. Jacob has his own secret history and recognises the unspoken yearning in Bridie Bowden. They succumb to a passionate affair in which Bridie discovers what true love feels like but both know that this relationship has nowhere to go. Jacob eventually decides to leave the district rather than disrupt Bridie’s life with her husband and children.
Twenty years later, Bridie is a widow and the lure of their hometown has brought all the Bowden offspring back to live in the district where they grew up. It is then the revelation of one stunning gesture that changes the course of Bridie’s life and puts her within reach of fulfilment at last. The district in which they live hosts a famous portrait prize * and a painting from long ago is the winner. Bridie, to her confusion, is invited to the opening as a special guest. It is then revealed that the winning portrait is of 35-year-old Bridie Bowden, painted by Jacob Elliott, and showing his great love for her and his understanding of all her yearnings. Though he is not present, his contact details are there in the catalogue and Aunty Kit makes sure she records them to give to her beloved niece in the hope that she and Jacob might get together at last.