Monday, December 2, 2013

Review: The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):   Her new novel, 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. At once a coming-of-age tale, a family saga, and a love story of erotic longing, The Story Sisters sifts through the miraculous and the mundane as the girls become women and their choices haunt them, change them and, finally, redeem them. It confirms Alice Hoffman’s reputation as "a writer whose keen ear for the measure struck by the beat of the human heart is unparalleled" (The Chicago Tribune).

And here's what I thought:   Some of my favorite books are by Alice Hoffman.  While I don't always love every book, I do love some of them enough that I re-read them from time to time (like The Ice Queen and Blue Diary).   And this one?   Well, I think I'll be ready for a re-read at some point, too.

There are several things that I enjoy in this book, and in other books by Alice Hoffman.  I like that she will work in small elements of magic into the real world, sometimes just in a whisper-thin amount, so that it feels completely believable, even as it may be unrealistic.  You think to yourself that magic does surely exist in this world, even if you've never experienced it in such a degree as her characters.   And speaking of her characters, Alice Hoffman doesn't shy away from creating flawed characters -- and I like this, as well.

In this story, we have three sisters, although a lot of the focus is on Elv, the eldest sister who is flawed, but fascinating.  At times, it's very difficult to like her at all --- but I found it impossible to not keep turning the pages because I found her to be riveting.    Elv's influence and impact on her sisters and her mother and grandmother drive a lot of the story.   Claire and Meg are no less compelling, and when their lives diverge from Elv's, they are still quite connected.

One of the other things I enjoy about Hoffman's books is her writing style.  She doesn't just turn phrases in a way that make you clearly see a place, or a person, but she has the ability to evoke a lot of emotion (at least, for me).   Even if I don't necessarily feel a connection to a character, I can feel a connection to something they are feeling.   Here's an example, from page 110, where Elv is with a horse she is taking care of: "Jack banged his body against his stall and whinnied like crazy when Elv got there in the morning.  When she whistled, he came right over, like an enormous, well-trained dog.  Sometimes she sat in the straw in his stall and just talked to him.  He looked at her with his big dark eyes and she felt tears rising.  Not crocodile years, but real ones.  Maybe when she left she would steal him.  Or she would leave his stal door open and he could run away and be free.  The horses didn't judge Elv by the way she looked or discvern that she was marked and ruined.  They didn't care that something had happened to her and that one saw who she was."

Hoffman doesn't shy away from some of the ugly things in this world, and truly, what happens to the sisters in this story isn't always pleasant.  In fact, it is something that happens to Elv as a child that impacts everyone else, both shaping Elv and the people around her.  Even as there are slight magical elements, there is realism that grounds the characters and the story.



First lines:  Once a year there was a knock at the door.  Two times, then nothing.  No one else heard, only me.  Even when I was a baby in my cradle.  My mother didn't hear.  My father didn't hear.  My sisters continued sleeping.  But the cat looked up.

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