Title: While My Sister Sleeps
Author: Barbara Delinsky
Release Date: October 27, 2009
Publisher: Anchor (paperback)
Review source: Concord Free Public library
Molly wondered if Robin had known what was happening to her out there on the road. The thought that her sister might have felt a pain in her chest, sensed what it was, and realized that she was all alone gave Molly a chill. Worse, though, was the shutdown that might have followed—lights snapped off, everything black. Brain dead. It was too much.
While My Sister Sleeps is a moving novel that focuses on two sisters: Molly and Robin. Molly is five years younger than Robin and has lived in the marathon runner’s shadow for years. Now within a split second, the dynamics have changed for the Snow family. Robin, who had cardiomyopathy [a damaged, enlarged heart], has a heart attack during a run and is now brain dead. While the family rallies at her side in the hospital, no one wants to admit the truth; there’s not much that can be done any more. No one knew that Robin had this condition. Why did she keep it a secret? Robin wanted more than anything to run in the Olympics. Perhaps if her family knew, they would stop her. Her mother is overprotective of Robin. Molly feels left out by the closeness that her mother and Robin share. The Snow family runs a lucrative horticulture business, Snow Hill, on forty acres on New Hampshire’s border with Vermont and Robin is the only one who never became part of the family business. As the days tick by more details are revealed about Robin’s true feelings about her family and about running through her journal and other objects found in her home she shares with her sister. While My Sister Sleeps examines the threads that can tear a family apart or weave one closer together.
— Amy Steele
Barbara Delinsky recently answered my questions via email.
Amy Steele [AS]: Why did you decide to focus on two sisters for this novel? What is it about that relationship?
Barbara Delinsky [BD]: My niche as a writer is focusing on family issues. In my mind – and my personal experience — sibling rivalry is a biggie there. Siblings compete when they’re kids, and the competition doesn’t end when they’re grown. That makes sibling rivalry a timeless issue with which a huge number of my readers will identify.
AS: Why do the sisters have such different relationships with their mother?
BD: Some of it has to do with birth order; as the first born, Robin is the beneficiary of the same high parental energy as many first children are. In her case, there are also other reasons why her mother is so heavily invested in her, though I can’t say much more without giving away a chunk of the plot.
AS: What did you want to illuminate about relationships between mothers and daughters in While My Sister Sleeps?
BD: Communication is key. This is the bottom line of the book. On the surface, we have a situation where the oldest daughter can’t speak, her mother, father, and brother are paralyzed, and there are crucial decisions to be made. It is left to the younger sister, my main character, Molly, to speak for this sister with whom she has had a love-hate relationship for years.
AS: The men seem to be in support roles here. What was your intent for Charlie and David and even Nick?
BD: I build my plots in layers. The top layer in While My Sister Sleeps is definitely the issue of communication between sister and sister, and mother and daughter. But the men have communication issues as well. These issues simply give the reader more to think about on the subject.
AS: Why did you choose such an unusual profession for Robin?—a marathon runner in the United States cannot make that much money.
BD: Money is never an issue for Robin. The issue is fame. Robin needs to achieve on a very high, very elite and unusual level. Being an Olympic marathoner would give her that opportunity – and she is close, so close. This makes the stakes for her future all the higher.
AS: While My Sister Sleeps addresses two medical conditions—cardiomyopathy and anorexia– that people tend to keep very secret. Why did you choose cardiomyopathy for Robin? How did the anorexia/ Alexis storyline come about?
BD: My books are nothing if not realistic. I chose cardiomyopathy for Robin because it is a real and serious condition for elite athletes. The anorexia storyline is simply another of those layers I mention above. In this instance, there is a parallel between Alexis’s parents’ denial of their daughter’s condition and Kathryn’s denial of Robin’s condition.
AS: You’ve involved some really personal and controversial issues: brain death, advanced life support, living wills, organ donation. How did you research these issues to address them in the novel?
BD: These issues are sensitive ones, and the kicker is that protocol varies by hospital, by state, by region. Since my book is set in New England, I worked with nurses here in New England, ones who deal with these issues every day. They gave me reams of information both on the medical and the psychological ramifications of these issues. I shot them emails with further questions right through the end of the book. [writer’s note: kudos for working with nurses for information. They are really on the frontline and amass intimate knowledge of their specialty areas.]
AS: What has been the response from readers out on your book tour?
BD: Amazing. This book tapped a nerve. Readers identified with this story, whether the medical issue, the one of sibling rivalry, or the one of communication. Most humbling for me were notes from readers who said they had reached closure on some of their own issues during their reading of the book. I often get this from my readers, validation of fiction as therapy!
AS: I just have a comment. Another issue with medicine is that of privacy. I actually was quite surprised that Molly suggested her landlord call the hospital to verify that her sister was really in there [so that she might get an extension]. Then the family didn’t know that Robin was an organ donor but knew ever other facet of her life. She lived with her sister etc.? You have to have two signatures to become an organ donor [I am one]. But then you were good about Nick and his need-to-know access as a reporter with HIPAA. [writer’s note: I expected a response but this is email after all]
AS: What element is most important to you for a good story?
BD: Emotional reality. I write about everyday women facing not-so-everyday crises. I want their responses to be real.
AS: What is your favorite part of While My Sister Sleeps?
BD: The end. Robin gave her family a gift of seven days to be together, to learn things about her and each other that they’d never known, to forge a better future. I find it to be totally uplifting.
AS: What is in your to-be-read pile?
BD: Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. My book group will be discussing it. [writer’s note: How cool that a New York Times best-selling author is in a book group! Not that I should be surprised.]
AS: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions Barbara. I will see you at the breakfast. I’ll be bringing my mom.
Barbara Delinsky will one of the featured authors at the Breakfast with the Authors as part of the Concord Festival of Authors on November 7.