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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 44.
- Review Date: 2008-03-17
- Reviewer: Staff
Estranged sisters Ginny and Vivien Stone reunite after 50 years, releasing a flood of painful memories in Stone’s eerie, accomplished debut. Ginny and her younger sister Vivien lead an idyllic childhood in West Dorset, England, until Vivien nearly dies in an accident (the aftermath of which takes decades to unravel) when Ginny is 11 and Vivien is eight. Later, after the pair is expelled from school, a 15-year-old Vivien moves to London, and Ginny stays behind, covering up her mother Maud’s alcoholism while trying to assist her father, Clive, with his research on moths and butterflies. After Maud’s death and Clive’s subsequent dementia, Ginny lives alone in the massive house, a brilliant but increasingly reclusive scientist whose insular world is cracked open when Vivien announces her desire to return and live out her days with Ginny. Long-buried secrets float to the surface as Ginny narrates with scientific precision her life’s slow disintegration. Though the lepidopterological jargon and asides can slow things down, Adams expertly captures Ginny’s voice and the dynamics of a deeply troubled family as the book barrels toward its chilling conclusion. (June)
Such devoted sisters
The leaking, cavernous home in the English countryside where The Sister is set is so cold, so musty and mysterious, you practically feel the damp coming up off the pages. Virginia "Ginny" Stone has lived there her entire life, immersing herself in her work as a lepidopterist (a scientist who studies moths), which is how her family has earned its fame over generations.
As Ginny ages, riddled with arthritis and occasional forgetfulness, so does the house. She closes off first one wing, than another, and sells off most of the valuable furniture until the house is bare. At age 80, Ginny is alone with just her precise daily routinecarefully planned down to the way she meticulously makes her bed in the morning and ensures her many clocks are synchronizedto keep her tethered to sanity.
But then her sister, Vivien, who hasn't set foot in the house since their mother's death nearly 50 years ago, turns up to stay. Vivi announces she's there to look after her older sister, and Ginny has no reason to doubt her. But within hours of her arrival, it becomes clear that Vivi has returned to find something within their sprawling childhood home.
The Sister is a fantastically chilling debut about how love is sometimes more powerful than memory. Author Poppy Adams, a television documentary filmmaker, creates a wholly original character in Ginny, a trusting, simple woman who wants nothing to interfere with her warm childhood memories. In Ginny's mind, their beautiful, stylish mother and eccentric, brilliant father were the toast of their small village, and Ginny and Vivi enjoyed an idyllic life in the country. So what if their mother drank a touch too much sherry, and their father retreated entirely into his research? So what if Vivi and Ginny were best friends at home, but Vivi ignored her entirely while they were at boarding school? So what if Vivi, unable to have children because of a childhood accident, asks Ginny to have a baby for her, only to turn her back on the child when it's not what she expected?
Vivi's return brings up long-repressed painshe insists their family life was pocked with anger, betrayal and violence. Is it Vivi or Ginny who remembers correctly? And is it ultimately more important to remember the past as it was, or to find comfort in how you wish it had been? Like the pervasive dampness in the Stone house, the questions raised in The Sister will linger with you.
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.