Her Sister’s Shadow

Her Sister’s Shadow by Katharine Britton
The Berkley Publishing Group/Penguin Group

Reviewer:  Sheri de Grom

                                                  Katherine Britton’s debut novel,
Her Sister’s Shadow fulfilled my every expectation. Surprises arrived.

To paraphrase E.M. Forster from his landmark book, Aspects of the Novel, ‘a characteristic of good writing is that it is surprising yet convincing.’

Lilli,the next to theyoungest of four sisters, hasn’t been home in forty years and doesn’t have plans to return anytime soon. Not to her childhood home in Massachusetts anyway.  She does, however, wish that life had a rewind button. When she left home, before finishing high school, she was a young girl with a broken heart. Her parents and youngest sister were dead and her oldest sister, Bea, had married the man she loved. If that weren’t enough, Lilli felt responsible for her younger sister’s death, was blamed for her mother’s death, and had a one-night stand with her oldest sister’s husband on the day of her second sister’s wedding.

Her Sister’s Shadow begins with an introduction of Lilli in the present. She’s arrived home at her London flat after a long day at her art gallery. Lilli didn’t just leave her childhood home, she moved across the pond. She’s changed into silk lounging pajamas and started her dinner when the phone rings.

Lilli has become a successful business woman in the forty years she’s been gone and lives by her own rules. She would ignore the phone but she hears Bea’s voice.

Bea still lives at their childhood home in Whitehead,Massachusetts with Randall, (the man Lilli loved) but Lilli hasn’t seen her since she left in 1969. She did see Randall once when she returned to the states for an art showing. Lilli has always preferred to keep telephone conversations with her sister short. She talked with Bea on holidays, birthdays, and when a friend or relative died. The conversations were always awkward. There was too much history between them—too many years and too many miles. But, this time, Bea’s calling to tell her Randall died and ask Lilli to come home for the funeral.

Lilli hopes she might right some of the secrets surrounding her family by going home—but life remains a mystery to her. Lilli hopes that with Randall gone, she and Bea can resolve some of their differences. Accomplishing anything with Bea, however seems impossible.

Her Sister’s Shadow continued to impress me with its unexpectedness and freshness. I was hooked long before the close of chapter one. A seamless transition into chapter two led me to family dynamics forty years earlier. I was surprised as a reader but, at the same time, there was a sense of rightness to it all.

As readers, we are sophisticated enough to know what happens next might just be something that happened in the past. This places us in the character’s memory and it becomes an important part of the plot. The alternating chapters of the sister’s lives as adolescents and then in subsequent chapters as adults, adds depth to the story that’s profound in a work of fiction.

 The house the girls grew up in held special allure for Lilli and Bea. Lilli couldn’t stop herself from going home and Bea couldn’t leave.  Pg 18 . . .[“Lilli scanned the bluff of pink granite at the far end of the cove for her old house: the rambling, comforting presence that once anchored her world, worried that it would be so greatly changed that she wouldn’t recognize it, or it wouldn’t recognize her. But it was hidden behind a wall of vegetation, which struck Lilli as odd. Why block the million-dollar view?”]. . .

Katharine Britton places her characters in situations that pull the reader in to the story and call upon the most basic of human behavior found in all families.

Lilli’s mother had told her, Pg 46 . . .[“Life is like a garden, Lilli. You must enjoy it at every stage. Don’t be so eager for the blossoms yet to come. Before you know it, it will be fall, and the flowers will die and leave you forever. You can’t rely on another person for your happiness, Lilli. You must learn to be self-reliant.”]. . .

Katherine Britton’s writing is rich and flows without interruption weaving the past into the present and inviting the reader to step into the future. Pg 245  . . .[“You tricked me into coming here. The invitation to Randall’s service wasn’t a loving gesture. It was a totally selfish one. I could get past that, but not wrangling Izzy into having her wedding here when she doesn’t want to, just so I would stay here longer and, as I now understand it, move in here with you.”]. . .

Her Sister’s Shadow was an enchanting read. All scenes contributed enormously to the plot, yet the ways in which they do so are subtle and complex. There is cause and effect throughout the story. Ms. Britton didn’t have to invent some linear, simplistic reason for what were complex behaviors.

Perhaps this is the reason the alternating time sequence chapters work so well in Her Sister’s Shadow.

This debut novel was a joy to read and I hated for it to end. It fits easily into the top debut authors I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The book is so finely crafted; I know I’ll have a problem falling into my next read.

 Her Sister’s Shadow is a captivating read and I highly recommend it for book club groups and individuals alike.

How about you, do you like novels that give you more than just a glimpse of the characters past?  Do you have an author you’d like to share?

About Sheri de Grom

Retired Fed/JAG, 5 yrs. on Capitol Hill. Former book buyer for B and N. Concerned citizen of military drawdown. Currently involved in mental healthcare reform, health care strategist and actively pursuing legislative change wherein dual retirees are exempt from enrolling in Medicare at their own discretion without losing tertiary healthcare benefits. Monitor and comment on Federal Register proposed legislation involving Mental Health, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Medicare and rural libraries. Licensed OSHA Inspector to include Super Fund sites. Full time caregive to Vietnam era veteran. Conceptualized, investigated possible alternatives, authored, lobbied for, and successfully implemented Title X, Section 1095 (known as the Third Party Collection Program of Federal Insurance).
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6 Responses to Her Sister’s Shadow

  1. Lynn Garrett says:

    Once again, a beautifully written review. I don’t have any sisters, and the view into the workings of those relationships tempt me to read this book. Thanks for your insights.


  2. Wow, Sheri, I can’t wait until it’s my turn to choose the book group’s pick — no need to do a lot of browsing; I’ll just copy your evaluations and bring ’em to the group. Thanks for making the process so much easier!

    Or, well, maybe not so easy… 🙂

    • Laurie – ‘My Sister’s Shadow’ is still rambling around in my head – two weeks after finishing it. It has everything I want in a women’s fiction book. There’s fully developed charactes, both internal and external conflicts with lots of emotion, community involvement that impacted the family and beautifully expressed dialogue and oh the descriptions made my heart sing. IMO, Katharine Britton is an author to keep an eye on. I’ve read 3 books since reading ‘My Sister’s Shadow’ last week – and it’s ‘My Sister’s Shadow’ that lingers in my mind. Can’t wait to see you in class soon:)

  3. Casey says:

    Last week I purchased Violets of March; This week you have once again lured me to use my gift card to purchase Her Sister’s Shadow.

    Thank you for being such an incisive and comprehensive reviewer.

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