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Book Review: The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman

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The Story Sisters is a dark tale in which three sisters and their divorced mother meet their fate in uncanny ways. At the beginning of this story, all three Story sisters are top-notch young women – gorgeous eyes, long black hair, shapely, witty. They are respectful to their mother and grandparents. Yet with all these positive qualities, they seem determined to face life’s mysteries with immature, juvenile attitudes.


The sisters travel from New York each spring to visit with their grandmother and her rather high society acquaintances in Paris. Although the sisters have sworn a life of allegiance to one another, as they grow and develop, they find it is not always comfortable or even agreeable to honor this commitment.


The eldest Story sister, Elv, seems lost between the real world and a make believe magical place named Arnelle. Here, she believes her sullen human life would somehow be transposed to palatial order where kings and queens ruled, where the unkind and the unjust are punished severely, and where curses and witchcraft were common.


Early on in The Story Sisters, Elv has already drawn her other two younger sisters into half-believing in the magical underworld of Arnelle. In fact, the three girls have developed a special language so they can communicate secretly. For example, “Nom brava gig, reuna malin,” meant My brave sister, rescue me.”


Whether the author intended that the divorce of the Story girls’ parents caused the emotional inadequacy in each of their daughters, the tale offers no real explanation. Their mother, too, appears psychologically unsound in directing adequate, personal growth in her girls, particularly Elv. She feels hurt and left out of the girls’ lives, particularly when they communicate using their strange Arnish language.


Elv slowly loses control of her life. Caught between her bewitched belief that she will someday reach the underworld to find true love and happiness on her own terms, in the real now-world, she gives in to malicious dark urges. Sexually, she becomes active with a heroin addict who introduces her to the drug world. Here, she finds some semblance of order as her belief in Arnelle jells into true hallucinations.


Elv steals her divorced father’s flashy convertible and convinces her two younger sisters to thrill ride with her. They fail to make a turn and the car flips over. Elv is injured but leaves the accident scene. Her youngest sister finds the middle kin dead and lies beside her until rescued by police and emergency personnel. After the accident, she refuses to speak.


On and on, the morbid tale continues. Like a whirlpool, it descends deeper and deeper into a world of hopelessness and despair. The Story sisters’ mother finds she has terminal cancer. After chemo and radiation treatments are deemed ineffective, she knows she is dying. In spite of her efforts to restore some loving relationship with her daughter, Elv, she is literally turned away at the door of eldest daughter, who is intoxicated with drugs.


All in all, I was fascinated by The Story Sisters for the wrong reason: I kept hoping for just a glimmer of true affection and happiness amidst the betrayals and psychological disintegration of the Story family. I must admit that in the last segment of the tale, the youngest Story sister falls in love with a man who appears normal in every way.


But what seems to be a ray of hope for this youngest sister, in my mind, does not offset the gruesome tone of the rest of the book. In particular I wonder what will happen to Elv, who now has a child. I would not recommend this book as a satisfying read in spite of the success of other books Alice Hoffman has penned. For me, it is just too dark to be enjoyable.

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