I half read, half listened to this book on my iPod (Hope Davis is lovely as narrator). I got teary at the ending, even though I had peaked ahead and knew the novel's final secrets. Getting there was a thrilling ride, with well developed characters and a plausible if not always believable plot. Dr. Swensen is a formidable presence, and Marina is her match. Still hearing pieces of Ms. Davis' narration in my head several days later.
I graduated from Brown in 1981, one year ahead of the author and the setting of the opening of this novel, so I was excited by the opening chapter, a faithful reenactment of graduation weekend and all the attendant ceremonies, family embarrasments and farewells. Everything is perfect, down to the Talking Heads lyrics and local diners. But as the novel wore on, I became less and less engaged by/with the characters, as their lives moved so slowly forward and backward, a tiresome trio, destined to hurt and pillage each other through their early middle ages. The narrator of the audible version wasn't enough to keep me going. Maybe the marriage plot is too much to carry off after all.
"Sister Mine" is the story -- told in the first person -- of a tough and scrappy woman whose life has been shaped by her abusive father and the hard knocks she has absorbed and ultimately overcome. Shae Lynn takes care of everyone except herself, it seems, sacrificing health and happiness for everyone from her sister to her son to two young children at risk of being abandoned by their neglectful parents. In the end, Shae Lynn's goodness (mixed with a heapin' helpin' of grit and more than a little scheming of her own) leads to the happy ending you think she deserves. Well read, with just enough of a mild accent or changed tone to give each speaking character its own identity.
I am an avid reader, but not a big Hemingway fan, so I didn't know what to expect from this novel. I found it to be a believable tale of "the wife behind the great man," told from the perspective of the wife. The author does an admirable job of creating suspense and action, even though the reader knows from the outset that separation and divorce and even worse await this loving couple. She also does a good job of giving life to the post-World War I lifestyle and culture of two expats with a thirst for adventure and the drive to seek it out.
As to the narrator, I disagree with those who have been critical of her. While I acknowledge that the "voice" she used for Hadley's direct quotes was too stereotypically high pitched and whiney, I thought she was a lovely reader, with an interesting "gruffness" for Hemingway and a calming style that made me look forward to my daily commute so that I could enjoy her calming voice. Bravo!
I found this novel to be interesting on many levels -- the way the author weaves the history of the Channel Islands with the stories of the main characters and their families, the struggle to decide what and who is "right", the strength of nature as seen in the power of the ocean and the rain and the will of animals to survive (and of humans to decide and influence that survival). I'm not a fan of Boyle's historical novels (e.g., The Women, Road to Wellville), so I was happy when this more fictional novel came out, and I wasn't disappointed. I compare it to Drop City and Talk Talk as recent favorites from Boyle. I thought the narrator was good, with a bit of cynicism and touch of accent where you would expect it.
It seemed like the story was not being told in chronological order, yet it was. Like the beautiful silk lining of a fine coat, there were stories layered into stories, stitched with hidden threads, told in a way that didn't make sense till you moved forward or thought back. Then, once you understand what the author's doing and has done, you move into the more straightforward part of the story and it becomes a wonderful novel, with deep characters and plenty of plot. I really liked the narrator (first book I ever listened to and I must say it spoiled me compared to others I've heard since).
Parts of this book are light and entertaining, others are dark and foretell the darker side of human emotions that lurk deep within those who can't overcome their demons. I suppose I should have seen the ending coming, but didn't. The author tried to save it with a little denouement about one of the more normal (and unknowingly exploited) characters, but it failed to lift the ending for me. I enjoyed the narrator's style and straightforward approach.
To me, this book is about the impact of the death of a mother on a young girl and her isolated, eccentric, unworldly brother and sister. Ava the brave one, Ava the designated successor to her mother as the next great female alligator wrestler, Ava the fearless, sees herself as carrying on her mother's (disappearing) legacy. Her brother, Kiwi, has similar dreams (unrealistic) of saving the family business. And Osceola falls into an unreal world of her own. And in the end, Ava's fearlessness and Kiwi's dumb luck (the result of his unrelenting efforts to make something of himself) save the three of them. There's one surprisingly disturbing scene, but I guess it was necessary. I grew to like the female narrator, realizing that her young girl's voice was right for the role. And I liked the male narrator's interjection of energy and disbelief in reading the chapters about Kiwi's adventures.
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