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As best I can recall, I read this novel in the late 1980s, when I would collect lists of recommended novels for high school students planning to study the humanities; I may have read it a few years later. So the novel was most likely published in the mid to late 1980s; from what details I remember of the novel, it could have been written any time in the 20th century, though stylistically it seemed at least post-WW2.

It was set in a rural area, and I think in the UK or Ireland. The protagonist was a young woman, who was exceedingly shy, and who was bullied a bit by her sisters, who did not respect her. They may have been step-sisters; I remember that I was reminded of Cinderella. At one point the protagonist missed a spot while washing dishes; her sisters complained a great deal about it, one saying that she should always use a mop.

The protagonist is somehow introduced to a young man, a bit younger than her, who is sick, and who spends almost all his time in his room, playing out detailed fantasies with toy soldiers. They seem to be soul mates. He soon dies, and the protagonist manages to collect his clothes and toy soldiers, recreates his room, and spends all her time there, remembering him. Her family tries to put a stop to this, but she finds the strength to push back, and so secures her own identity.

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    +1 Very good description of the book. Somehow it sounds familiar, but unfortunately I cannot help. I might have seem some movie made after the book, though.
    – virolino
    Oct 31, 2022 at 10:44
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    Welcome to Marwencol has some matches, but I think the book is a documentary. The film, Welcome to Marwen, was the dramatic fiction. Nov 1, 2022 at 11:43
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    Was she married? "Reading Turgenev" by William Trevor also looks to match some parts.
    – Ayshe
    Nov 4, 2022 at 23:27

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+50

"Reading Turgenev" by William Trevor could be a possibility.

Excerpt from Penguin Random House's readers guide:

In Reading Turgenev, Mary Louise settles for marrying Elmer Quarry, fourteen years her senior, so she can move into town and work at Quarry’s drapery. Mary Louise and Elmer share absolutely no passion—in fact, they fail to ever consummate their marriage. Elmer’s sisters, Rose and Matilda, resent Mary Louise’s intrusion into the family and continuously harass her. As Elmer and Mary Louise become more isolated from each other, Elmer disappears into drink and Mary Louise carries on a platonic affair with her frail cousin, Robert, for whom she had a childhood fascination. After Robert dies, he is no less central to Mary Louise’s life. She buys his possessions at an auction and continues to project herself and Robert into the Turgenev stories he once read to her.

I searched inside the archive.org record of the book and the details of dish having had dried cabbage leftover scene with the sisters on pages 57-58 and Robert having toy soldiers are there.

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