Review | Sisters, by Michelle Frances

SistersCoverI love books about sisters. Bring on the sibling rivalry, the family drama, the very complex bonds that connect them through life no matter what circumstances throw at them! As a thriller, and as a book about sisters, Sisters brings all the expected elements to the fore, and provides us with a fast-paced, entertaining read.

First, we have the pair of sisters who are polar opposites. Older sister Abby is super ambitious and Type A. She lives on a much more frugal budget than necessary, eschews her vacation days for extra pay, and works a high-power corporate job that allows her to retire at age 36. Younger sister Ellie has never done well at school, and has always felt the weight of her sister’s academic and athletic achievements. Having missed out on various activities due to being a sickly child, Ellie lives for the moment, using up all her vacation days as a teaching assistant to explore the world. Her credit cards are maxed out, and she doubts she’ll ever have enough money to retire as Abby has.

We also have the sibling rivalry. Due in large part of Ellie’s childhood illnesses, their mom Susanna has always favoured Ellie. Susanna often ignored Abby’s achievements to care for her younger daughter, and even when both sisters are adults, Susanna and Ellie share a bond that Abby can’t hope to penetrate.

Then Abby invites Ellie and Susanna over to her home in the beautiful Italian island of Elba. She shares a devastating secret about their childhood, a horrific accident occurs, and soon the sisters are on the run across Europe. And while on the run, Ellie learns something that makes her doubt Abby’s account, and raises the question of what the truth actually is.

Sisters is a fun novel. There are twists and turns throughout, and I wasn’t sure who or what to believe until maybe about halfway into the book. I loved the tension between the sisters — the little judgey comments from Ellie whenever Abby counted costs to the penny, the judgeyness on Abby’s part at Ellie’s flirting with a cyclist. The novel slowly reveals to us the sources of tension throughout their childhood, so that we gradually understand better why they have such a hard time getting along.

Despite the basic premise of them not getting along, there isn’t a lot of outright fighting between them. Rather, the tension often simmered below the surface, and came out in facial expressions and passive aggressive asides. I appreciated this, because I thought it felt true to the reality of their situation, which required them to work together, and also because I feel like many family tensions do manifest in these subtler ways. I also like how moments of tenderness came through at unexpected moments, such as one involving a blue dress, as these demonstrated how the sisters cared for each other, despite everything.

The only snag for me was that at some points, the twists, turns, and red herrings just tipped over the edge to silly. For example, around the halfway point, the grandmother shows up and makes a startling, super dramatic revelation. I’m not sure what that revelation was meant to do, as I don’t think it really added anything to an already dramatic storyline. But circumstances related to that revelation made me roll my eyes. It required too much a suspension of disbelief, and so removed quite a bit of the uncertainty I’d been feeling around plot elements.

There was also a running plot thread about a friend whom Abby kept trying to call, that seemed to serve no function other than adding a bit of tension. That plot thread never went anywhere, which I found disappointing considering how often this friend was mentioned in the first half of the book.

And finally, I’m not sure how I felt about the ending. On one hand, it was satisfying in the sense that justice was served. But on the other hand, I felt like it still left a lot of questions in the air, about character motivations and emotions. Those topics were touched upon in detached, clinical terms at other points in the novel, but we never actually hear the characters themselves process them. Given the complexity of these motivations, having the ending not even having the characters delve into these themselves felt like truncated catharsis, and left me needing more.

Beyond that, Sisters was a fun read, and a great book for an entertaining weekend.

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Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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