Posts Tagged sisters

book review: A Reunion of Ghosts

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A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell. Harper Perennial| January 26, 2015| 416 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 9780062355898

RATING: ****/5*

“The truth is, we all fell through the cracks, and that’s where we’ve stayed.”

How could I not read a novel about three sisters living in their New York family brownstone—one divorced, one widowed, one never-married—who form a suicide pact. . Dark anything suits me. Dark humor. Absolutely. This isn’t three sisters giving up necessarily but realizing that with them may end the generations-long family curse. History. Using collective first-person, author Judith Claire Mitchell describes each sister and her struggles and upsets with flair, detail and gallows humor. Mitchell writes: “We’re also seven fewer Jews than a minyan make, a trio of fierce believers of all sorts of mysterious forces that we don’t understand, and a triumvirate of feminists who nevertheless describe in relation to relationships: we’re a partnerless, childless, even petless sorority consisting of one divorcee (Lady), one perpetually grieving widow (Vee), and one spinster—that would be Delph.”

It’s a superb exploration of familial guilt and discontentment. There are six suicides in the Alter family including their mother, two aunts, their grandfather and their great-grandmother. WWI and WWII figure prominently in their collective legacy. The novel flips from the present day lives of the three sisters to their ancestors. The greatest influence seems to be great-grandparents Iris and Lenz who live in Germany where both were scientists. Iris became the first woman to earn her PhD at university yet Lenz works and she frustratingly doesn’t as it was the early 20th century. Lenz works on weaponry. Details about their grandparents and parents add to the melancholies. “But we’d avoided growing up. We’d lived our lives like perpetual children, hiding in corners, never knowing what to say, never knowing what to do. If our plan to die was problematic, it was problematic in that it eliminated the possibility of our ever becoming serious, capable women.”

Are the sisters independent spirits or does their ancestral history factor into their current lives? Of course we all inherit genetic dispositions, illness and traits; it’s how we live as our authentic selves in the present that matters. The Alter sisters cannot stop being drawn to the past and slowly it’s revealed why. Mitchell develops their stories and personalities so that we feel we know them quite well. Two out of three graduated college and they all work various professions—Delph works as a bookstore clerk, Vee as an insurance agent and Lady as a dental assistant. While close the sisters keep some secrets from each other. A Reunion of Ghosts mostly speeds along as each sister proves quite the character on her own and as a trio they’re strong and quite amusing. Despite the ending, it’s a delightful read.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Melissa Senate [The Secret of Joy]

See my earlier review of The Secret of Joy by Melissa Senate. Recently Melissa took the time to answer these questions for me.

AMY STEELE [AS]: Why did you decide to have Rebecca live in Manhattan and Joy live in Maine?

MELISSA SENATE [MS]: I moved to Maine from New York City (where I’d lived since 1989) in 2004 and I can clearly see every day that Maine is a beautiful, easy place to live. But five years later, it still doesn’t feel like home. I think I sent my main character to Maine to find what I know is here (the beauty, the quaint, the lack of traffic and honking, the quirky), but haven’t really appreciated on any kind of level (except where it concerns my young son; Maine is made for kids). I think I made Maine and Wiscasset sound dreamy because I know it is and wanted to help myself see it. It did work a little. But for me, a lighthouse will never compare to Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace with its Angel of Waters statue.

AS: How do the differences between and urban and then a more serene, rural setting advance or influence the story?

MS: It’s interesting to me that New York seems like the bad guy in the story. It’s where Rebecca can’t find herself, can’t breathe, gets her worst news, feels trapped by her own . . . rut. And Maine is where everything opens for her.

[writer’s note: I’m an urbanite but I would, if I could afford to, have a country house in The Berkshires, Maine or Vermont]

AS: Many TV shows and films, place the urban woman in the middle-of-nowhere town where hilarity ensues. You definitely took a different approach with Rebecca. Why? Have you had some experience in this with your own move from NY to Maine?

MS: I’m a sucker for those fish out of water movies, even ones starring Renee Zellweger. But being in a very different environment wasn’t at all a driving force in the novel. Granted, the setting created its own world, but at its heart, this story could have been told with basing Joy in the East Village of Manhattan. Would have sounded different, sure, but the “middle of nowhere” aspect for The Secret of Joy was really to send Rebecca off to a place that in itself would be comforting. A comforting, sweet backdrop so that when she felt most alone, her surroundings would be like a hug. One of my favorite blurbs for The Secret of Joy said it was “a warm hug of a book.” I love that.

AS: How realistic do you think it is that Rebecca fits in so quickly in the town?

MS: When I first moved to Maine, to a small town with one (unnecessary) traffic light, I felt like I fit in right away. One neighbor knocked on the door the first day with vegetables from her garden. Another invited me to a book club meeting. Fitting in can often depend on how you feel about where you are. The people Rebecca meets (and the people I met) are not very different than she is, really. More down jackets and fewer pointy high heels, maybe.

AS: How did you come up with the idea of the letters unsent, kept in the box?

MS: Much of The Secret of Joy is based on what I wish I knew about my own biological father, who I haven’t seen or heard from since I was eight. I have always known that, as the result of his own affair, I have a half-sibling who was born when I was seven, a half-sibling I’d never seen or heard from until I was in my thirties when I received an email that said: I think you might be my half sister…. The story isn’t at all autobiographical; just that nugget of half-siblings connecting as adults is based from real life, but there are certain things I wish were true. One is that my biological father wrote a stash of letters explaining himself—and in a way that would bring closure. That’s one of the most wonderful things about writing fiction that you can change whatever you want to fix in your own life.

[writer’s note: I “re-connected” with my father as an adult (I too had not seen him since I was about 10) and he published a magazine in L.A. and I’m a writer. How perfect. Well, he blew it again and again. We agreed I’d write for him. He’d pay me a small amount. The check bounced. Same dead beat dad. And after all that time, what hurt the most was that his daughter he hadn’t seen in 20 years was there and he could have re-established a relationship and he chose not too.]

AS: Why sisters? What is it about the bond between sisters that usually makes for a compelling story?

MS: What I love about the dynamic between sisters is the potential. You should be best friends, first best friends from the tiniest of tot hood, but oftentimes sisters are not best friends, not friends at all because of what parents do their children, whether meaning to or not, or because the sisters are just very different people. What’s possible, what should be, is what I find so beautiful and love delving into.

AS: What do you think The Secret of Joy can tell people about family dynamics?

MS: What was reinforced for me during the writing of this book is that sometimes (and key word is sometimes) there’s no real bad guy when it comes to family dysfunction, that all involved feel differently about things depending on their point of view and personalities. I’m a happy person because of this way of thinking.

AS: Why did you choose the travel group as a career for Joy and the paralegal at a mediation firm for Rebecca?

MS: I wanted to give Rebecca a career that made endings a good thing, which is a bad thing for her. And I wanted to give Joy a career that made beginnings, and the open road, a necessity. Rebecca’s job is so bad for her that it helps her be in a place where she wants to flee. And Joy is right where she needs to be, with a foot firmly on the brake that slowly lifts up.

[writer’s note: Very clever. I never thought of that in reading it but now I see it and adore that idea–delightful!]

AS: What is your favorite aspect of the novel?

MS: What I love most is the spirit I think is there. There are a lot of stuck people in the novel, and at the end, they’re all on the way to finding the secret of joy for themselves. No one’s found it, of course, but they’re seeking it instead of doing absolutely nothing or remaining status quo or stuck in a rut. The seeking is everything.

AS: What do you find to be the greatest challenge about writing?

MS: Finding my main character’s heart and soul and putting voice to that. It takes me a good one hundred pages until I feel like I know her inside and out and can really tell her story. The fun part of that is then I can go back through those first 100 pages and color what’s black and white.

AS: How did you create the character of Michael—he’s like my ex-boyfriend and usually the type of guy I’m attracted to- successful but controlling?

MS: Yup, know the type! I’m not attracted to controlling, but I’ve had controlling boyfriends and I know how easy it is to lose yourself to their voice, their opinion, especially when you don’t know what you want or where you should be. For Rebecca, leaving controlling Michael, leaving her job, leaving her home would take something very big, something that was all hers and meant nothing to anyone else but her. That something presented itself in the form of a half-sister, a total stranger. And she reaches out for it. Michael calls her constantly in Maine, comes after her, never really listening to her from the beginning. He seems supportive, full of hugs and hot chocolate and wine and “their future,” but what he actually says is rat poison.

AS: What kind of research went into The Secret of Joy? as it is unusual for an adult to find her sister after the death of her parent.

MS: Eight years ago, I received an email that said: I think you might be my half-sister. Can you imagine getting that email out of the blue? The I think itself floored me. I took the nugget of that and created an entirely fictional premise and plot and characters, but the emotional impact, the emotions, period, all very real. That was my research!

AS: Why was Rebecca so desperate for a family that she didn’t even know in Maine. What attracted her so much to Maine?

MS: I don’t think she was desperate for a family; I think she was given this wisp of a huge thing (a secret half-sister) by her dying father and that it felt like a lifeline to her. A connection to herself, when she felt she had none—no family, no sense of herself or where she belonged. What she was desperate for was what was possible.

AS: Why the title The Secret of Joy?

MS: My editor came up with that perfect title, which now seems like such a no-brainer. (I’d originally called it The Love Bus, but the art department had big trouble designing the cover with such an odd title.) The main character’s secret half sister is named Joy, but what the title means for me is that the secret of joy is individual for every character in the book and they’re all finally looking for it. As I said, I think the seeking is everything.

AS: Thank you Melissa. I enjoyed The Secret of Joy and really enjoyed See Jane Date too which I read when it first came out.

MS: Thank you! I loved all your in-depth, insightful, and interesting questions!

[writer’s note: You are one of my new favorite author-friends! If I can be so bold to say that.]

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book review: The Secret of Joy

Title: The Secret of Joy
Author: Melissa Senate
ISBN: 978-1439107171
Pages: 352
Publisher: Downtown Press (November 17, 2009)
Category: women’s fiction
Review source: publisher
Rating: 4/5

People had been telling her of their tragedies and triumphs since preschool. With pinky promises and crossed hearts and swearing on various boyfriends’ lives not to tell (and Rebecca never did: she was a supreme keeper of secrets), she would hear stories of parents divorcing, of older sisters getting pregnant, of letting a boy unhook a bra. When she’s started working, she’d spent her lunch hours listening to all sorts of family dysfunction, of boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands who wanted this or didn’t want that. But then her mother had died and Rebecca had lost her way and trailed along in her dad’s career as a real-estate attorney—for too long.

The Secret of Joy takes an interesting approach to a topic not often addressed. What happens when a 28-year-old woman finds out from her dying father that she has a younger sister? Rebecca Strand longed for a sister all her life and now gets hit with a double blow: her father is dying but she has a long-lost sister living in Maine. He had an affair when Rebecca was two. She has endless questions about what this woman looks like and what she does and would she like her? Rebecca knows that she must meet her. Her father instructs her about a locked box he has kept in which she finds letters that he wrote to Joy on her birthday but never mailed. The Manhattan paralegal, in a two-year passionless relationship with Michael, takes her bereavement leave to find this sister, box of letters at her side. Rebecca is impulsive and idealistic. Her sister Joy is skeptical and practical. She’s a singles group tour planner. Rebecca throws herself into Joy’s life without giving Joy much of a chance to make any decisions. No matter how many times Joy turns her away, Rebecca determinedly returns. Before too long, Rebecca has new friends in Wicasset, Maine and even a blossoming love affair and she’s renting a house. She also has no desire to return to Manhattan. Maine provides another character for The Secret of Joy, as anyone who has visited knows. The people are genuine and welcoming, in no rush to be anywhere and generally sweet and comforting. At first, I thought, how realistic is it that she is embraced so quickly but then realized it’s small town Maine. Of course they would welcome someone as open and caring as Rebecca.

She glanced back at Rebecca. “Really. He’s nothing to me but biology and DNA. My mother married a very nice man when I was nine. He helped raise me. Why would I be interested in some stranger who couldn’t even face up to the most basic of responsibilities?”

With both her parents dead, she desperately wants a family and in that she wants her sister. Even if her sister doesn’t quite believe in the whole DNA makes us sisters argument. Joy resents their father for abandoning her and her mother completely. Joy says a sperm donor does not make a father. A father has to be present in someone’s life. [And I can understand this as my parents divorced when I was around six and my father disappeared. My mother remarried when I was 12 and I even changed my name when I was 23. My biological father reappeared during my adult years and it turned out that he ran a magazine. You would think this would be the perfect opportunity for his writer daughter to re-connect with her publisher father but he had never changed. He was still a deadbeat. So I would be just like Joy. Very unsure of what to expect.] Rebecca intends to make up for her father’s faults. Through touching moments, realistic situations and real people to which anyone can relate, Melissa Senate has created a book that will provide much debate on the subject of parenthood, siblings, and familial relationships. I’ve never had a sister but writers adore writing about the bond between sisters. In this one, the reader never knows whether Rebecca and Joy will ever find a common bond or a place at which to begin to mend that past that their father tore apart decades ago. The Secret of Joy provides an astute outlook on sisters, a subject that many women’s fiction books adore to cover.

Thank you to Sarah Reidy and Pocket Book Blog Tours.

Buy The Secret of Joy at an Indie Bookseller

–review by Amy Steele

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Title: While My Sister Sleeps
Author: Barbara Delinsky
ISBN: 978-0767928953
Pages: 384
Release Date: October 27, 2009
Publisher: Anchor (paperback)
Review source: Concord Free Public library
Rating: 3.5/5


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.

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