Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: The Sister Season by Jennifer Scott

Abuse leaves scars that don't always show. It breaks people down and affects them forever, even long after they have escaped the abuse or the abuser. As generations of families who have lived it show, it taints members' relationships, destroys their ability to trust, and is terrifically difficult to overcome in order to develop a healthy life. In Jennifer Scott's first adult novel, The Sister Season, the three Yancey sisters and their mother Elise have endured years of abuse at the hands of father and husband Robert but now they are all gathered, just before Christmas, to bury, if not mourn, the man.

The sisters haven't been home in ten years, not only because of their father's abusive alcoholism and their mother's sad enabling, but because they fled from each other as well. Now they are all home and even though Robert's death is the reason, Elise is hoping that they can have a regular, happy family Christmas, of the kind they never once had while Robert was alive. But each of the three sisters has returned home harboring a secret and clinging to the tension and dysfunction of ten years prior. Julia, the sister they call Queenie for her regal ways and the way that nothing ruffles her, has brought her suicidal teenaged son Eli with her and left her uber-busy, work-obsessed second husband behind at home. Maya, the middle sister, arrives with her two young children and her serial philandering husband Bradley. And Claire, the family wild child, who is assumed by Maya, and perhaps Julia and Elise too, to have slept with Bradley ten years ago despite her constant disavowals of the accusation seems to flit lightly home but she too is carrying a well camouflaged distress with her. All three of them are hiding something but what they don't bother to hide is their antagonism, making Elise's dream of a happy, peaceful Christmas impossible.

The narrative shifts between a focus on each sister and Elise, with increasingly explicit teasers about the secrets each of them have in their live. Julia's suicidal son Eli also narrates short sections as he tries to choose the perfect time and day to kill himself. Through his narration, the excessive dysfunction of the Yancey family is exposed as he sees things almost from the perspective of an outsider. As each sister's full story is revealed, it is clear the many ways that these women are physical survivors of abuse but that they are still emotionally trapped and affected by what they experienced and witnessed for so many years. They are all emotionally fragile in different ways, detached from relationship, and distrustful. Being uninvolved or channeling perfection or staying at arm's length has been the sisters' coping mechanisms and must be what they face in themselves as they try to come back together and make connections now in the wake of Robert's death.

This is not a heartwarming Christmas tale complete with healing at the end. It is a tough and painful emotional journey. The characters are a bit one dimensional and because of the major issues facing each sister, it sometimes seems as if it is a dismal bog-wallow. Things go from bad to worse for this family all through the holiday. The ending is quite tentative and maybe the tiniest bit hopeful but the time jump from Robert's funeral after Christmas to the following year means that the reader is told about the sisters' healing and change, having it presented as a fait accompli.  Overall a very quick and easy read, it definitely tackles some difficult issues.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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