Monday, May 11, 2015

"The Story Sisters," by Alice Hoffman

I stopped reading Alice Hoffman some years ago, because although I enjoyed some of her earlier work, I felt her writing was too “magical” for my taste. But for some reason I picked up the CD version of her novel “The Story Sisters” (Random House Audio/Books on Tape, 2009), and was quite drawn into it, despite its having its own magical elements. The story (and there are multiple uses of the word, name, and concept of “story” throughout) starts with, and is occasionally interrupted by, a sort of spooky, frightening (although with a thread of resistance and strength) fairy tale about a girl who experiences danger, darkness, and violation, and yet knows how to survive. The main story, situated in the present and mostly in Long Island and New York City, focuses on a family, but most particularly on the character Elv, who as a child also experiences danger, darkness, and violation, and is also resilient, but at a price. Elv is the oldest of three sisters (Elv, Meg, and Claire), the titular Story sisters, who are first described as ideally intelligent, accomplished, beautiful, and close to each other. They even have a secret language that only they understand. Even when their parents split up, they seem to do well, and get strength from their loving mother and from each other. But soon cracks appear in their solidarity, and we learn more about a devastating secret that Elv and her sister Claire share. The third (middle) sister, Meg, does not know the secret, and gradually becomes less close with the other two. Things go downhill from there, as the secret causes Elv to “act out” as she goes into her teenaged years, become rebellious and endanger herself and others. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot; suffice it to say there are many twists and turns in the family’s story, most of them sad, difficult, and even shocking. But eventually, despite horrific events and losses, there is some slow, hard-earned, fragile, but real healing. Reading (or listening to, in my case) this novel is not for the faint at heart, but it is compelling and original. At times it slides into the melodramatic in its style and plot, and I am still not a fan of the magical fairy tale aspects, but those do add an atmospheric, psychological backdrop to the main story. As always, for me one of the most compelling aspects of the novel is the portrayal of the dynamics of the family, and the relationships among the family members. And I have to add a note about something related that struck me: These sisters were very fortunate to have some adults in their lives (besides their devoted mother) who just wouldn’t give up on them. One was their grandmother Natalya, who lives part of the year in Paris and with whom the sisters stay at various times; another was their grandmother’s best friend Madame Cohen; still another was their mother’s significant other, Pete. In particular, the novel reminded me of the role and importance of grandparents in many children and young people’s lives. I had wonderful grandparents, but because I grew up overseas from where they lived, I wasn’t able to see them very often. My own mother, however, has always made a point to spend time with my daughter and her other grandchildren, as did my late father. Those grandchildren feel her love and care, and are the better for it.
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