Thursday, September 18, 2008


Toronto: HarperCollins, c2008.

Okay, it is BBAW but I am so busy I haven't been able to participate much. At the least I want to post a review I've been working on for a while. This is a novel I received as an ARC, but didn't finish it up until just a few weeks ago. Quite a number of people have read it by now (Chris at Stuff as Dreams are Made On, Annie at Superfast Reader, Wendy at Caribousmom).

My general opinion is that I liked it a lot, though it did have a few first-novel flaws. The basic story: Ginny is at the window of her childhood home, Bulburrow Court, awaiting the arrival of her sister Vivi who she hasn't seen for nearly 50 years. Taking us back through their history, Ginny tells us about their childhood and then about their scientist father's fascination with moths. Vivi's arrival stirs up all the old conflicts again, and the two of them skirt around one another in the empty old house with Ginny telling us more than some people wanted to know about moths, as well as all about their dysfunctional family.
The good things about this book for me were the prose itself (it is densely written, gothic elements abound yet the prose doesn't turn into purple passages) and the sense of place. The huge old house looms over the story, as the perfect crumbling gothic mansion. I also liked the biology angle; I know some people felt there was far too much information about moths in it, but I actually enjoyed the scientific descriptions quite a lot. Plus it was just creepily fascinating to read about phenomenon like "pupal soup" -- the fact that a caterpillar weaves a cocoon and then basically dissolves itself into goo, which then reforms itself into a butterfly. It's astonishing.
However, while I did enjoy reading this, the storyline became far too predictable and had too many holes in retrospect. And while I loved the actual writing, the unreliability of the narrator as revealed at the conclusion makes the deliberate, detailed narrative and her career choice all seem fairly incongruent. The conclusion was a bit troublesome for many, seeming out of place and unexpected compared to the rest of the book. Perhaps the unnecessary title change affected the reception of this novel; the original British title was The Behaviour of Moths, which might have clued us in more quickly that all the dull mothy bits were actually quite important as metaphors for family relationships. I'm not sure why the title change was thought necessary anyhow; did they think North Americans have never heard of moths? The Sister is a singularly uniformative title as a replacement, in any case. At least it made me wonder which sister it referred to; which one was the stranger one, or the one who was the impetus for the plot?
Overall, I rate this one a good read, but not a Great Read.


  1. I appreciate your review. I struggled with this book (and I *like* biology in books!) and put it down after a short while. Which is really unusual for me as a reader, and so I was confused by so many rave reviews I read elsewhere. Yours makes me feel less crazy, but gives credence to the merits I overlooked.

  2. This is one of those novels that, just because of the cover, I have a hard time keeping myself from buying it! Call me shallow. lol

  3. This sounded so good to me, so I picked it up at the library and didn't make it past the first chapter. I just couldn't get on with it for some reason. It sounds like it had a lot of potential.

  4. Kerry - I started it a couple of times before it caught me. I could appreciate the author's potential but overall it was not a flawless novel.

    Andi - if you're shallow so am I! Sometimes an appealing cover is all it takes to hook me. :)

    Tara - I read the first chapter a few times, as I mentioned above! I think it's one of those books you either just read right through or put aside forever.


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