“The Sisters” makes us think at the outset we will encounter the tale of Mabel and Bertie, two sisters who become estranged through a tragic misunderstanding in hardscrabble 1920s Kentucky. However, author Nancy Jensen’s narrative grows organically, and it turns out Mabel and Bertie only represent the prototype of all the sets of sisters-at-odds portrayed here. These girls and women seem each to have their own secret which they feel protects their loved ones, but in the end these secrets and entrenched positions do far more harm than good.
Mabel and Bertie inaugurate matters with a story of sisterly devotion gone wrong; Mabel suffers at the hands of her stepfather, and determines to protect her little sister Bertie. But Bertie never learns of the plan Mabel has hatched with the boy who loves Bertie, for escape and deliverance, and becomes embittered. Bertie’s bitterness colors the rest of the novel. She has two daughters in her turn, Rainey and Alma, two very different women whose own estrangement is based on two very different strategies for getting away from Bertie and her husband Hans. Alma, climbing socially, marries a horrid man who is a doctor. Rainey, hopelessly naïve, finds herself in far-too-early motherhood because of her basic lack of understanding of the birds and the bees, which is Bertie’s fault entirely. The real payoff in this novel comes to us when the younger generations mature and find their way.
I had a hard time setting aside my impatience with the universal intransigence on display. Bertie sets the tone, with her lifelong refusal to even get to the bottom of what happened that fateful day in 1926. Her daughter Rainey inherits the stubborn streak, excoriating her daughter Lynn’s father, her ex-husband, and preventing any contact between him and his daughter. Rainey’s other daughter, Grace, is the one fairly hopeful offspring of all this, and perhaps it’s because of her father (who remains unknown to her), who is an elegant, scholarly, kindly man who has no idea he’s fathered a daughter. That’s because, once again, Rainey kept it secret from him because, I don’t know, perverse stubbornness afflicts everyone in this book.
However all that is, I want to praise the author for the progress of her characters. All these secrets and all this conflict between sisters distills itself into the metal-working craft which the appropriately-named Grace learns and pursues: she makes suits of armor. This is the finest fictional effect in the novel, and maybe the only trope worth the name. And the youngest two characters, the lovely-sounding Taylor, getting set to head off to college, and her sparkling second cousin Sarah, getting ready to enter high school, wrap up this book on a high note, and represent potential redemption for Grace and her sister Lynn.
I liked the clarity of character, although I found the entrenched positions and animosity quite fatiguing. I deeply admired how the story grew, like a living organism, to encompass eighty years of family history and such a variety of women and girls. Although Ms. Jensen goes to considerable lengths to lay the foundation for Bertie’s life of denial and anger, for me it only partly succeeds.
I do like reading debut novels, and Nancy Jensen sustains an energy throughout this multi-generational saga that must be recognized. I applaud the spirit with which the younger generations, beginning with Grace, struggle against the overwhelming energy directed at maintaining ancient resentments.