Alice Hoffman is an author known for her novels filled with magical touches. Her latest, The Story Sisters, continues that, when a magical world created by three sisters collides with the reality of the world in which we all exist.
Elizabeth, called Elv, Meg and Claire Story live with their mother in a small town on Long Island. Their parents are in the middle of a bad divorce, and it has affected the girls deeply. When they were young children, Elv (whose nickname connotes the fairy-like elves) created a fairy tale world, Arnelle, which had its own language. It slightly concerned their mother Annie when they would continue to speak this language, even as they grew out of childhood. Annie's mother Natalia warns her that this behavior could isolate the girls from the real world.
This fantasy world contrasts with the physical world in which they live. Annie has a large garden, and grows heirloom tomatoes. The girls are knowledgeable in all areas tomato. They love animals: Elv likes dogs, Claire rides horses. Elv is artistic, attracted to painting and color. Meg is a voracious reader, and a very good student. They sleep in the same bedroom, and are each other's best friends.
The horrors of the real world intrude on the girls of Arnelle when a bad man hurts Elv, who saves the younger Claire from his clutches. They never tell anyone about "the day the bad thing happened", not even Meg. This bad thing, and her reluctance to tell her mother, causes Elv to act out. Annie is struggling too, "she felt as if everything she did was in halves: half a mother, half a teacher, half a woman". In that one sentence, Hoffman articulates the feelings of so many women.
Elv begins to believe "that evil repelled evil, while good collected it", and she is determined to become evil in order to expel it from her life. She uses drugs, becomes promiscuous, steals- everything a young woman with low self esteem does to dull her pain. Meg is angered by her sister's behavior, but Claire vows to remain loyal to Elv. Elv's behavior breaks the bonds of sisterhood she so tenderly nurtured.
Hoffman uses imagery and metaphors so beautifully. When Elv saves a kitten thrown into a river, she tells Claire that she is haunted because she couldn't save a second kitten thrown in. Claire reminds her that it is important that she saved one, but Elv can't get over that she couldn't save the other, echoing the fact that she saved Claire once, but was unable to save herself.
The author's writing hits home with the reader, as when following a death, Annie's cousin says,
"Call me the minute you need something," she told Annie and Claire, but neither of them could think of a single thing they might need that anyone could possibly give them.Everyone who has lost someone knows that exact feeling.
This is a moving, haunting novel that will make you cry. There is so much sadness, so many tragic things that happen, and we all know people about whom we say, "haven't they suffered enough?" About a good man who becomes involved with the Story family, Hoffman writes
He stayed in the kitchen with the dog for a while. He covered his face and wept. When he was done, he patted Shiloh's head. This wasn't his house or his family or his dog, but it was his sorrow.
Hoffman broke my heart with this beautiful story of how secrets can destroy, but ultimately about the power of love to redeem. I became deeply invested in her characters, and will not be able to get them out of my thoughts. It is so powerful, so moving, it is the best of what fiction attempts to be.
Rating 5 of 5 stars