The Sister by Poppy Adams

The Washington Post has a review up of Poppy Adams’ novel The Sister. I read this back in March and enjoyed it—one of the many “good but not great” books I find myself reading. (I’m sure there’s a post in that.) The review is surprisingly positive for such a book, and instead of complaining as many have about all the lepidoptera-related technical detail it picks out a specific passage I had found incredibly interesting:

Moths, it so happens, have many of the same fascinating attributes as butterflies. Perhaps even more fascinating, as this passage about moths’ maturation suggests: “If you cut through a cocoon in mid-winter, a thick creamy liquid will spill out, and nothing more. What goes into that cocoon in autumn is a caterpillar and what comes out in spring is entirely different — a moth, complete with papery wings, hairlike legs and antennae. Yet this same creature spends winter as a gray-green liquid, a primordial soup. The miraculous meltdown of an animal into a case of fluid chemicals and its exquisite re-generation into a different animal, like a stupendous jigsaw, was a feat that, far from putting him off, fed Clive’s obsession.”

Surprisingly, however, while mentioning that Ginny, the narrator, “seems a bit dotty,” Dennis Drabelle doesn’t give much of a hint about how unreliable she really is, and seems to take “her version” of the plot as a given—I tended to side with her myself but I don’t think certain points are nearly so cut and dried. My own short review of the novel, written back in March, follows:

The Sister is told through the eyes of Ginny, an aging lepidopterist living alone in a crumbling country mansion. While she’s shut up with her tea, clocks, and routines, she waits for her younger sister Vivi to arrive and tells the story of their childhood. Eccentric parents, beautiful countryside, moths—the picture Ginny paints of the two sisters growing up is evocative and well-executed. Even the parts describing the minutiae of lepidoptery are interesting, though your mileage may vary. Eventually, Vivi arrives and the two women strain to revive a relationship after all these years despite conflict over their late parents.

The more Ginny tells us, the more we question the truth of her story, and of Vivi’s. The end left me wishing it was possible to get more of a grip on the reality behind all the memories. Unfortunately, at times it seemed Ms. Adams had written too many eccentricities and confusions into Ginny’s character, and too many themes trailing throughout the novel. I’m left wondering whether the focus should have been on alcoholism, aging, autism, family, loss, memory, science vs. emotion—the list goes on. Tighter editing may have improved this area and made the end somewhat less contrived, but in all I found The Sister engrossing.