cover image The Sisters

The Sisters

Nancy Jensen. St. Martin’s, $24.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-312-54270-2

First-time novelist Jensen redeems her soap opera plot—tracing the lives of two sisters separated in their youth by a tragic misunderstanding—with an observant eye, adept characterization, and a keen grasp of social issues. When 19-year-old Mabel Fischer realizes that their predatory stepfather, who has repeatedly raped and humiliated her, has designs on her younger sister, Bertie, she flees smalltown Juniper, Ky. in 1927 with Bertie's boyfriend and a plan for Bertie to follow. But the plan falls apart, leaving Bertie with what seems like a double betrayal, and sundering the sisters’ lives forever. Bertie marries, but her union is marred by bitterness and the coldness she shows to her two daughters. And Mabel, who doesn’t marry, kidnaps and keeps a child who has been sexually abused. In alternating chapters, Jensen chronicles the difficult, often traumatic lives of four generations of women who descend from the Fischer sisters. There’s plenty of drama, much of it illuminating the changing roles of women in society over a span of 70 years. Jensen nicely integrates history and themes such as the enduring ravages of war on men who fight. While the legacy of Mabel’s courageous sacrifice and Bertie’s barely suppressed anger is “a map of sadness and loss,” it’s brightened by their resilience and the promise seen in the youngest members of the family. (Nov. 8)