Lady, Vee, and Delph Alter are cursed. They are the last of the Alters, the fourth generation of a family plagued by history and suicide. The three sisters are in their forties as the end of the twentieth century approaches and they have decided that they will go out with the millennium. Yes, all three of them intend to commit suicide and finally end the curse that has followed their family since their great-grandfather's scientific discoveries were perverted to evil uses. Their mother told all three of her girls that "the sins of the father are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generations" offering them a grim biblical truth as their enduring life philosophy. But they don't just have a life philosophy, they have a death philosophy as well, that of suicide. And if that must be pithily defined, it would surely sound something like: pick your poison and choose your time.
The Alter family tree is chock full of suicides (the sisters know because they have a chart posted on the back of one of the bedroom doors detailing each one) but not a one of these long dead souls has ever left a suicide note. This is where the sisters are going off of the family script. This novel is their suicide note, and what a note it is. Before they make their final exit, drinking smoothies no less, Lady, Vee, and Delph want to record their family history all the way back to their great-grandfather and the genesis of everything. Because the novel is a collective suicide note, it is told in the first person plural "we" which lends it an interesting and unusual communal voice. The sisters are all very different and well defined and yet this group telling works wonderfully. The narrative jumps back and forth from the family history, where the Alters are intimately connected to important world history and some of the big names in it, to the sisters' lives both past and present.
If a novel about three women intending to commit suicide with the novel itself purporting to be the suicide note sounds incredibly depressing, readers should know that this couldn't be further from the truth. The sisters are witty, quick with a snappy comeback, fond of word play, smart, and entertaining. Certainly they embrace death, but casually and unafraid. There's a fair bit of truly funny gallows humor as they recount the defining tragedies in their own lives and those of their ancestors. And there's been quite a lot of tragedy, some greater and some smaller. Great-grandfather Lenz Alter, the originator of the family curse, is based in part on the real life Fritz Haber, a German Jewish scientist who converted to Christianity and won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his discovery synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen, a process that in turn led to the development of fertilizers and explosives. Considered the father of chemical warfare for his weaponizing of chlorine gas in WWI, another of his discoveries led to Zyklon B, the gas used in the Nazi gas chambers in WWII, and he might or might not have been the first to synthesize the drug Ecstasy. It is with the legacy of Haber's real life accomplishments that the fictional Lenz Alter dooms his family, at least according to the sisters. But the novel is not just the record of one dysfunctional family as its last surviving members troop inexorably towards their own carefully planned deaths in their apartment's Death and Dying Room. There are twists and turns, surprises and shocks too, that ask the question of whether there can ever be redemption or if we are definitively trapped by fate or long-held belief. There are no actual ghosts here but the telling of the tale is indeed a reunion, the collective noun for a group of ghosts, of the ghosts who have haunted the sisters forever. The novel is quirky and rich, literary and accessible. There are a few bits that drag but in general, the sisters and their history are engaging enough to keep the reader engrossed in the story, wondering how it can, and indeed must, end.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.