Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Sisters by Nancy Jensen

I really wanted to like The Sisters. The advance praise for the debut novel claims that it is an “epic” journey through eight decades of a family history, a story of two sisters and the position of women in American society. The author's note at the beginning tells of learning of a piece of her family's history and, not knowing all the details, deciding she needed to write the book herself. I have a sister; we've had our ups and downs. I was primed to like this book and yet...

The estrangement between the first pair of sisters in the book comes from a misstep in communication and a subsequent refusal to hear the true story, to entertain any idea of another explanation. The separate lives led from that point on seem to have more downs than ups, especially for the sister who did the rejecting. From their stories, and the stories of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren I have considered again the position of women in American society in the twentieth century into the twenty-first. From what I've gathered, women have a pretty lousy position because:

1. They have been/are(?) subjugated by men.

2. They have been inadequately educated, for one reason and another, therefore

3. They have made poor choices.

4. They become bitter, thus influencing future generations to make poor choices.

I feel like there should be one of those “always/sometimes/never” quizzes at the end of each chapter.

The story is told in a sort of picture album fashion, with each chapter from the point-of-view of a different woman and a jump ahead in time as if the pages have been flipped, sometimes decades ahead. I don’t usually mind multiple characters and points-of-view, but I found it difficult to keep these characters straight, even with the helpful family tree in the front of the book. Complicating each relationship is an inability to communicate with family and oftentimes others.

The trouble with judging this book is that I don’t know if much of the story is real, with an imagined reason for the initial division, or whether it is completely a work of fiction. If it is the biography of a family, it is difficult to read because there is much avoidable hardship and not enough explanation of “where they are now,” except for glimpses through the stories of the other women, to make the reader care about their arduous lives. If it is purely fiction, then I find it frustrating for much the same reason, but also because the stories are so depressing. It’s as if Jensen is a Fairy Anti-Oprah: “Your life sucks, and your life sucks and your life sucks!” Even worse is the end, with its flashback to the details of the crisis that initiated the divide. I suppose it is meant to be uplifting, as one sister recasts the history in the way she had hoped it would turn out. I just found it sad.

The Sisters is on sale November 2011.

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