Every romance needs a hero and heroine, but sometimes a secondary relationship is so striking, so interesting, that it almost steals the show. Pride and Prejudice is, of course, about Elizabeth and Darcy. But it’s about Elizabeth and Jane too. Some of the best moments and the best dialog are about them, and about their relationship and their differences. Series and stories involving siblings are a dime a dozen, but books that really nail sibling relationships are a lot rarer. We see a lot more Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (with its very surface relationships…Bless her beautiful hide!) than we see the Bennett girls.
When someone gets it right, it feels like a bonus. My recent favorite is Courtney Milan’s novella, The Governess Affair. It is of course about a governess and a former boxer turned finance man of sorts. But it’s also about sisters. Serena (the titular governess) is the bolder sister who, after she is raped by the Duke of Claremont, stations herself outside his home every day, vowing to keep her vigil until he agrees to support her child. Her sister Frederica is basically agoraphobic. Frederica can’t understand why Serena takes so many risks. Serena can’t understand how Frederica can live like she does – or how it is even living. They love each other, though they don’t understand each other. Toward the end of the story, Serena thinks:
Maybe Freddy would always think Serena strangely broken, and Serena would always cringe, thinking of her sister ensconced in her rooms, slowly turning to stone. There was no convincing each other, no understanding each other.
But when Serena had most needed it, her sister had given her a place to stay. For all that Freddy made her stomach hurt, they still shared an affection made bittersweet by all that divided them. Perhaps God gave one sisters to teach one to love the inexplicable.
I was so struck by the last line that I texted it to my own sister – something I’m pretty sure I’ve never done before. She’s an artist, with all the creativity, originality, and free-spiritedness that implies. We love each other but tend to see life differently. I’m not sure she’s ever understood, for example, why anyone would spend years writing about romance novels when one could spend years writing romance novels (though she’s stopped saying that…at least out loud). We found common ground over the Milan quote, which she liked as much as I did. It was more insight than I’d bargained for in a novella.
While I have seen authors handle easy, companionable sibling relationships well (Nora Roberts comes to mind here, but there are others), I was hard-pressed to think of books that really went below the surface, or delved into more complicated sibling relationships. Who can you think of who “gets” the sibling relationship and does it right?
Total aside about sibling differences: I could tell you every detail of the t-shirt my sister is wearing in the picture above, but I’d be very surprised if she could (remembering things from thirty years ago is more in my wheelhouse). Although you can’t see it, it has Snoopy on it – in sunglasses, throwing a frisbee. It was the last one of its kind in the BYU bookstore, and she got it in a fair-and-square coin toss. I had to settle for the much less cool one with Snoopy sleeping on his house. It’s okay – now that it’s been thirty years, I’ve decided to let my resentment go.