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On The Shelf: ‘Sister, Sister’ by Sue Fortin

Credit: HarperImpulse

‘Sup readers? Welcome back to On The Shelf, Fanfest’s weekly (with exception) book review column, the aim of which is to provide honest critique of newly-released books so that you can make a decision between buying a physical copy, or an ebook. This week’s pick promised domestic drama, psychological thrills, and spine-tingling chills. I mean, that’s what it promised, but the publishers didn’t bother to spell the main character’s name correctly on the back cover all three times it was mentioned, so…

Sister, Sister by USA Today bestselling author Sue Fortin peers into the life of Clare Tennison (not Claire, as the back cover suggests). Clare is a solicitor who acts as the primary breadwinner for her family (her husband is a struggling artist who happily takes care of their children, and her mother is retired). She’s also beholden to the trauma of her childhood, the proverbial monkey that is forever gripping onto her back. When Clare was nine, her father abandoned the family, ditching Clare and her mother and running off to America with Clare’s four-year-old sister Alice. Understandably, this has left Clare with a lifetime’s worth of unanswered questions: why did her father take Alice but not her? Why did he leave in the first place? Where is her sister? Thanks to her father’s ice-cold desertion, Clare has built her life around waiting for Alice to return home: she has stayed in her childhood home, raising her own family there, acting as her mother’s rock because she can’t bear the thought of leaving her, even if it means having her own life that exists apart from the impressive shadow cast by her sister’s absence.

Clare has chased down every lead at her disposal in a bid to find Alice and restore her mother’s peace of mind with no success. But in a twist of fate— life is funny that way. And by “funny,” I mean it’s a straight-up troll— the family receives a letter from Alice: her father has just passed away, and her stepmother, no longer bound by her husband’s wish to keep the past in the past, gave her the means to contact her fractured family back in England (you go, stepmom!) It doesn’t take long before Alice decides she wants to reconnect with her roots, and the family is reunited, embracing their long-lost member with unconditional love. But it doesn’t take long for Clare to realize there’s something off about Alice: she’s mixing up memories, flirting with Clare’s husband, and latching onto their family with all the grace of a parasitic botfly. And strangely… it seems to be working. Soon, Clare finds herself doubting her own sanity as the rest of her family embraces Alice, and Clare is pushed to the fringes, on the outside looking in. But when a spate of terrible things start happening, she’s left to wonder: Which one of them is really making things up?

Oh jeez. I feel like I need a disclaimer: I wanted to like this book. It caught my eye on Goodreads as a suggested novel based on something I’d read and loved, and after reading the summary, I preordered the ebook with no hesitation. I love domestic dramas. I love thrillers. I love the love/hate relationship I have when they’re combined to form a nightmare scenario that makes me wary of random strangers on the street.

But… I loved nothing about this book. That is not an exaggeration.

Sister, Sister is the sort of book I’d recommend (I’m lying. There are a bunch of other ones I’d prioritize) to someone who has never read a thriller before. Everything about it lacked the necessary depth to make it believable: the characters were paper-thin with shallow, lightning-fast emotions (and I thought The Sims 4 was bad for this). Their actions and reactions flip-flop to suit the plot within the course of a few paragraphs. Example: at first, Clare’s husband Luke is wary of Alice’s visit and her agenda. Then he’s all for it. Then he’s wary. Then he’s all for it. Clare herself wavers on this issue, but Fortin doesn’t take the time to explain the way her characters transition from one extreme to the other, with the complexity of flicking a light switch on and off. All of these stale, one-dimensional characters only serve to hobble the plot further along, and get to the juicy twists. Which is another issue entirely. Fortin has a way of spoiling her own surprises prematurely, in such a way that screams “BAM! PLOT TWIST!” as soon as you read the heavy-handed clues she left on the page. I’m not going to write up any spoilers in this review (I just… I don’t care enough), but 39 pages in, she practically unwraps one of the novel’s biggest bombshells for us. The book is 360 pages, and Fortin slaps you in the face with one of the key puzzle pieces on page 39; at which point the novel is hardly more than set-up for the ensuing storm of crazy, so why would she give away such a huge thing? As soon as you see it, you’ll know what it is. This happens again and again throughout Sister, Sister, and let me tell you: it’s the literary equivalent of someone talking through (and spoiling!) a movie you have never seen, so that when the revelation is finally made, you just kind of accept it with a shrug and a bored, “I knew that was coming. What else is on?”

The writing was also awkward. At first, I enjoyed the conversational tone, but it quickly turned repetitive and basic, frustrating me to no end. There was no attempt to dive into any sort of emotional connection for anyone or anything. There was far more tell than show, and it was to Sister, Sister’s detriment.

The core question that’s supposed to keep you hooked is which sibling is crazy. Fortin makes it incredibly obvious which sister is off her rocker, and which should have been picked off by natural selection far before she reached adulthood.

Sister, Sister was unintelligent, clumsy, lazy, drawn-out, and quite frankly, a waste of time. It might, in future, make a good Lifetime movie (I bet they already have a dozen like it), but if I didn’t write this column, I would have deleted it from my Kindle after reading the first 15 pages. Sadly, I read the whole thing. I can’t recommend this for your shelf or your ereader, but if you want to give it a try anyway, you can purchase it here.

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