Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Story Sisters

New York: Shane Arehart Books, c2009.
325 p.

Let's start with something positive: the cover of this book is beautiful and mysterious. It was all downhill from there, for me. Hoffman's books can be a bit of a chance to take -- I didn't like the last three overly much, but some of her earlier ones I really loved. I often love Alice Hoffman, which is why I had requested a review copy of this book. Here is the precis:

The Story Sisters charts the lives of three sisters–Elv, Claire, and Meg. Each has a fate she must meet alone: one on a country road, one in the streets of Paris, and one in the corridors of her own imagination. Inhabiting their world are a charismatic man who cannot tell the truth, a neighbor who is not who he appears to be, a clumsy boy in Paris who falls in love and stays there, a detective who finds his heart’s desire, and a demon who will not let go.What does a mother do when one of her children goes astray? How does she save one daughter without sacrificing the others? How deep can love go, and how far can it take you? These are the questions this luminous novel asks.

It sounds promising, but I am afraid that the family dynamic did not work for me, not at all. As children, the sisters are extremely close, even inventing a language of their own called Arnish, and telling themselves tales of a dark otherworld with a threatening queen. As they grow up, things change. Eldest sister Elv goes wild, getting into drugs and becoming scary and unreliable. Meg and Claire try to negotiate a space for themselves as their single mother tries (ineffectively) to deal with the problems Elv causes.

The difficulty I had with this book comes right out of the summary for the book. It asks "how can she save one daughter without sacrificing the others?" And so I expected to read a story about a family that overcomes its struggles to find a new relationship to one another. What I got, however, was much different. I don't want to say too much, but when I got the end of Part I, I nearly threw the book across the room in disgust.

Part II takes us to Paris a few years later, where Claire is living with her Grandmother. While it is all very interesting, it didn't seem like the same book to me. It was disjointed, and felt as if Hoffman had suddenly morphed into Joanne Harris. Perhaps after so very many books set in New England, I can't see Hoffman heroines anywhere else. Or perhaps it was that I really didn't like or have sympathy for the heroines, or believe in their redemption. There were also far too many issues going on here; drug addiction, childhood abuse, cancer, and so on. Additionally, there are quite a few deaths in the book which began to feel overly melodramatic and didn't seem to serve much purpose besides moving the plot along. They did not feel integral to the story or like a natural or desirable outcome in the context of the Story family's experiences.

Part of my visceral dislike of this book may come from the fact that I myself am the middle of three sisters; I felt myself growing more and more upset by Meg's role in the story, and I certainly didn't agree with what happens to her. Okay, I can't get around this: SPOILER ALERT! (highlight to read)

Meg is viciously attacked by her older sister, verbally and psychologically, and is afraid of Elv. When Elv returns from the juvenile hall her parents sent her to, Meg takes to locking her door and even nailing her windows shut so Elv can't sneak in. All these obvious signs of distress and a strong sense of self-preservation, and her mother takes no notice, only worrying about poor Elv. Claire is pulled between her two older sisters, but when the end of Part I arrives and Meg gets in to the car with Elv and Claire I couldn't believe it. She may have done so out of a feeling she needed to protect Claire, but I didn't feel that, given her fear of and distancing from Elv previously, this was likely to happen. Her ultimate fate was both predictable and completely unnecessary and infuriating.

Anyhow -- this book has been getting lots of positive reviews so perhaps it is just me and my dislike of this particular storyline. But I felt it was a bit overdone and disappointing. The feeling of Fate taking charge and all the overly magical elements became tiresome and weighty, one more bad thing piled on top on another. I'd be interested to see if Hoffman writes another book set entirely in France, or somewhere outside of New England, as that part of the book was new for her and quite lovely. It seemed out of place in this story, but I can see that the setting might be a new and intriguing departure for her. The French grandmother and her neighbours were the liveliest characters in the book, in my opinion.

I'm not sure who I'd recommend this to; current Alice Hoffman fans perhaps. But I can give a counter-recommendation to any other middle sisters: it's disturbing reading for those of us in the middle!

gautami tripathy said...
Would like to know about The Story Sisters. What is it about. Where is it based?

Like most of Hoffman's books this one starts out in New England; it opens in New York City, and the family lives somewhere in a small town nearby. The second half of the book has a lot of the action taking place in Paris, and feels different from the first half.

Kailana said... The Story Sisters: (Which I really need to read because I own it too) Is this your first Hoffman, if not, how does it compare to her other books? Do you think I need to read it right away or can I wait?

I've read all of Hoffman's books, and that was why I was looking forward to reading this one. I have enjoyed many of her books (Practical Magic and Blackbird House are two of my favourites) so was really disappointed by my reaction to this.

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...
I've only read one of Alice Hoffman's books, and that was a while ago. How would you sum up The Story Sisters for someone who knows nothing about it? What kinds of readers do you think are most likely to enjoy it?

To sum up...three sisters who live with a single mother in a big old house in New England; it has magical overtones with odd occurences and a barely concealed sense of danger. Like all of her books there are ominous boyfriends, love and obsession, bad things happening and an ending with something redemptive and uplifting about it. The writing is dreamy, sensuous and full of mysterious plants/animals/nature scenes. I am not sure which kind of reader would be most likely to enjoy this; I just know it wasn't for me, and probably not for many other middle daughters!


  1. I've always wanted to read Alice Hoffman, but haven't managed to yet. I don't think I'll start with this! But if you could recommend one of her books, which one should I read?

  2. Gentle Reader - well, Practical Magic is one of my favourites, but Here on Earth is interesting if you like Wuthering Heights; it's a modernization of some of the elements in WH. I liked Blackbird House as well.

  3. I actually bought this book last week - so I am a little disheartened by your review *laughs* But, I'm going to go into it with an open mind. I'm the youngest of three sisters and I have to admit that was part of my attraction to the book. I hope to read it sooner rather than later!

  4. I just finished this book last week and had a very similar reaction to you. Very similar. Down to wanting to throw it against the wall. I was very disappointed by this book and am glad to see (sorry!) that I'm not alone!

  5. Wendy - well, I hope you like it, and if you don't, well, don't post about it on Twitter... ;)

    Heather - Whew! Not just me. Didn't you hate the ending of Part One???????


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