Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Sister

The Sister by Poppy Adams
Knopf Doubleday, 2008
Hardcover, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781616880408
highly recommended

From her lookout in the crumbling mansion that was her childhood home, Ginny watches and waits for her younger sister to arrive. Vivien has not set foot in the house since she left nearly fifty years ago; the reclusive Ginny has rarely ventured out, retreating into the precise routines that defined her days, carrying on her father's solitary work studying moths.
As the sisters revisit their shared past, they realize that their recollections differ in essential and unsettling ways. Before long, the deeply buried resentments that have shaped both of their lives rise to the surface, and Vivien's presence threatens to disrupt Ginny's carefully ordered world.
Told in Ginny's unforgettable voice, this subtle and chilling debut novel tells an extraordinary story of how families are capable of undoing themselves - especially in the name of love.

My Thoughts:

The Sister by Poppy Adams opens with seventy year old Virginia (Ginny), a recluse, waiting for her sister Vivien (Vivi) to return to Bulburrow Court, the decaying family mansion, after being away for nearly fifty years. The novel focuses on the four day period of time when Vivi returns home. Ginny is the narrator and as she reflects about her life a picture of her childhood begins to emerge. Their mother, Maud, is gregarious and often answers for Ginny. Their father, Clive, was a famous lepidopterist and Ginny follows in his foot steps, making the study of moths her life's work.

It becomes clear right at the start that Vivi's visit is going to disrupt Ginny's carefully planned days. It also becomes clear that Ginny is an unreliable narrator and that something is not quite right about her. We know from the start that she is obsessively focused on time. We learn that she has exact rituals for making tea and for making her bed. We learn that she is unable to show emotion or interpret emotion in others. Ginny also doles out large, obsessive amounts of information about moths - so much that the moths become another character in the book. Ginny tells us that she, like her father, is a world famous lepidopterist.

While it didn't bother me, in earlier reviews of The Sister some readers were bothered by the vast amount of information and facts about moths. That may be something to take into account if you think it might annoy you. I felt that it became clear that the information about moths is important to the story and raises questions about the role of biology in a person's actions - is it nature or nurture that dictates our actions.

Adams is a talented writer and did a wonderful job building the suspense. As the present events unfold, details about the past are told in alternating chapters. It soon becomes clear that events may not be exactly as they are presented and there are more questions raised than answers given. A draw back to this is that all the loose ends are not tied up in the end so it requires some speculation on the part of the reader.

I wish some of the questions raised had been answered in this atmospheric Gothic thriller. Basically I enjoyed The Sister right up until the end when I was left feeling a little let down.
highly recommended


It’s ten to two in the afternoon and I’ve been waiting for my little sister, Vivi, since one-thirty. She’s finally coming home, at sixty-seven years old, after an absence of nearly fifty years. opening

Did I tell you that Vivien said in her letter she was returning for good? For some final peace, she said, because now, she said, we ought to be keeping each other company for the rest of our lives, rather than dying lonely and alone. Well, I’ll tell you now, I don’t feel lonely and I certainly don’t feel as if I’m dying, but even so I’m glad she’s coming home. Glad, and a little nervous - a surge of apprehension is swelling in my stomach. I can’t help wondering what we’ll talk about after all these years and, I suppose, if I’ll even recognize her. pg. 4

She is late, however. I look at my wristwatch—the digital one on my left wrist. Her letter most specifically read one-thirty and, believe me, it's not my timekeeping that's gone awry. I keep a number of clocks just so I can be sure that, even if one or two let me down, I can always find the correct time. When you live by yourself in a house that you very rarely leave and is even more rarely visited, it's essential that you don't lose track of the time. Every minute lost - if left uncorrected - would soon accumulate to an hour, and then hours, until - as you can imagine - you could easily end up living in a completely erroneous time frame. pg. 4

It was a childhood in perfect balance, so I’m wondering what it was that came along and changed everything. It wasn’t just one thing. There’s rarely a sole cause for the separation of lives. It’s a sequence of events, an inexorable chain reaction where each small link is fundamental, like a snake of upended dominoes. And I’ve been thinking that the very first one, the one you push to start it all off, must have been when Vivi slipped off our bell tower and nearly died, fifty-nine years ago. pg. 5

Truth be told, it was Vivi who dreamed and I who listened, enraptured, for I was very aware that it was a gift she had been given and I had not. pg. 13 the time neither of us realized the rue significance of her accident. Only that she'd been so incredibly lucky. pg. 21

I wonder what Vivien's left behind in London; I wonder if this is the start of another special bond, like the one we had many years ago. Most of all I wonder why she's decided, finally, to come home. pg. 31

I can mimic the scent of a flower so that a moth will direct itself towards the scent, even if I have made sure that in doing so it goes headlong into a wall and kills itself. Each time each moth will kill itself. It is this constancy that makes them a scientific delight - you do not need to factor in a rogue element of individuality. pg. 55


raidergirl3 said...

Did I comment already? I certainly meant to.
I quite enjoyed this book, especially the narrator, and making sense of what really might have happened, once I realized I had to. I liked the ending, it was the only one for that narrator, if I am remembering correctly. I didn't mind the moth stuff too much, but I probably skimmed pretty quick over a lot of that.

Just rereading those quotes reminds me of how much I enjoyed that book. thanks for the great review!

Lori L said...

You are probably right, raidergirl, that there really was no better way to end it - although I did want a few questions answered... like why Vivi decided to come home after almost 50 years.

samantha.1020 said...

This is a book that I've wanted to read for some time now. I'll admit that I just skimmed your review as I do plan on reading it but sooner rather than later since you would highly recommend it :)

Lori L said...

I understand Samantha - I'd just skim my review too, LOL! I, too, had been planning to read The Sister for a long time but just never got around to it until now.