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Book Review – The Sister

My first book review — here it goes!

The Sister by Poppy Adams
Published by Alfred A Knopf in 2008
273 pages

I was first introduced to this book a few weeks ago when I read The Literate Housewife’s review. While I was intrigued by her plot summary and character analysis, I knew I had to read this book when she compared the voice of Ginny Stone to that of Vida Winter in The Thirteenth Tale (one of my favorite books). I am glad that I followed my instinct and immediately obtained the book from my local library.

This is a modern-day gothic novel – complete with the crumbling mansion, mysterious and suspenseful setting, unsettling questions, and, I think one could argue, a “mad” woman. The story takes place at Bulburrow Court, a dilapidated mansion situated in the Dorset countryside. The Stone family has lived here for well over a century, but currently there is only one sister who occupies the 4 story – 4 wing house. Ginny Stone is a 70+ year old retired lepidopterologist (now there’s a word for Bermuda Onion’s Wondrous Words meme — it means one who scientifically studies moths) who has closed off most sections of the mansion and sold nearly all the furnishings. The story is told as a first person narration from Ginny’s point of view, and almost immediately the reader is suspect of her reliability in relaying events as they truly happened. As a result, we are left with many unanswered questions at the end of the novel.

The novel begins as Ginny is waiting for her long lost younger sister to return to Bulburrow Court after nearly a 50 year absence. Ginny seems cautiously excited about this reunion, yet she wonders why Vivian has decided to come back after so many years. That is one question that is never completely answered. During Vivian’s 5 day stay (the book is divided into 6 parts spanning a period of 5 days: Friday – Tuesday and then, what I would call an epilogue, is entitled, “Today”) Ginny reveals the family’s history. What began as a truly idyllic childhood ended in great tragedy: Vivian experiences a horrible accident that leaves her nearly dead; their mother, Maud, becomes an abusive alcoholic; their father, Clive, who seems oblivious to his wife’s drinking problem because he is so absorbed in his moth studies, ends up in a mental institution after her death; an infant is born, but only survives a few hours; and Ginny is left alone in the sprawling mansion for nearly 50 years.

Sounds incredibly dramatic, does it not? However, since the story is told from Ginny’s point of view – and she is a trained scientist (which she reminds us over and over) – there is little to no emotional response when these events are narrated. Ginny tells us the plain facts – just like a scientist writing a final report for an extensive experiment. However this report does not tell us ALL the facts – and the reader is left with many unanswered questions. For example: who is THE sister – is it Ginny or Vivian? Why did Vivi decide to return home after a 50 year absence? What did Vivian know about Ginny – and want to share with her – but never had the opportunity to do so? How did Maud really die? What was the real cause of Vivian’s nearly fatal childhood accident?

I very much enjoyed this suspenseful, thought-provoking tale. I must admit that the detailed descriptions of lepidopterology were, for the most part, lost on me (who knew there were so many different species of moths – I just thought they were gray insects with paper-like wings that were attracted to light) – but I do suppose that gave us insight into Ginny’s compulsive personality and mental thought process (the woman is obsessed with knowing the correct time at all times). This book begs to be re-read, as I am sure there are many subtleties that I missed on this first go around.

All in all, I would rate the book a 4 out of 5 – and I am in awe that this is Poppy Adam’s first novel.

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