The Better Sister
I’ve heard a lot of positive things about Alafair Burke’s standalone novels, and I always told myself I’d pick one of them up at some point in the not-too-distant future. Of course, when your TBR pile is best described as a mountain, that’s far easier said than done. But when I read the blurb for The Better Sister, I was intrigued enough to move it to the top of my massive pile of books waiting to be read, a decision I definitely don’t regret.
It would be hard to find two sisters more different from one another than Chloe and Nicky. Chloe is the younger of the two, and she’s also the one who seems to be living a storybook life. She’s married to a wealthy attorney, has a job at an up-and-coming magazine, and is enormously proud of seventeen-year-old Ethan. But Chloe’s life is far more complex than it might seem at first glance. You see, her husband Adam was once married to Nicky, and Ethan, the boy Chloe has raised, is actually Nicky’s son.
Fifteen years before our story opens, Nicky, who was heavily addicted to drugs at the time, nearly let two-year-old Ethan drown in a neighbor’s pool. As a result, the courts found her to be an unfit mother and awarded full custody to Adam. Chloe began spending time with Adam and Ethan, and eventually she and Adam fell in love and got married. Nicky has never challenged this arrangement. She thinks Ethan is better off with Adam and Chloe than with her. She receives pictures and updates about Ethan’s life, and she’s convinced herself those things are enough for her.
One evening, Chloe returns home from a dinner party to find her husband lying dead on their living room floor. She assumes someone had broken into the house and killed him, but a police investigation turns up something far more sinister. Ethan is accused of the crime, and taken into police custody. Chloe is understandably distraught, but she’s determined to stand by Ethan’s side at all costs. She calls Nicky to let her know what has happened, and is taken completely by surprise when Nicky offers to fly home and help out in this time of extreme tragedy.
At first, things between the sisters are quite strained. Each of them is hiding things from the other, and neither is completely sure the other can be trusted. However, it doesn’t take them long to realize that in order to save the young man they both love, they’ll have to lay their past disagreements to rest and band together.
Both Chloe and Nicky are flawed heroines. I went into the story fully prepared to love Chloe and hate Nicky, but things didn’t turn out to be nearly so clear-cut. Nicky definitely made some big mistakes in the past, but she’s learned from the things she did wrong and has changed her life for the better. Chloe, on the other hand, is still trying to come to terms with her own mistakes, and she sometimes finds it easier to focus on other peoples’ shortcomings rather than on her own. Fortunately, both women grow a lot over the course of the novel, and I ended up liking them both quite a bit by the time I finished the book.
The second half of the novel contains a couple of big twists, one of which I saw coming pretty early on. Normally, I’m frustrated when I manage to figure things out way before I’m supposed to, but Ms. Burke managed to throw in a few key details I hadn’t bargained for, and so parts of the big reveal really did come as a surprise.
Most people who read these types of stories know to expect a certain amount of violence, but I do want to make potential readers aware of the fact that there are a few graphic descriptions of domestic violence here. I’m not going to tell you anything more than that since I don’t want to spoil things, so exercise caution before you decide to pick this one up.
If you love stories that focus on the complicated relationship between sisters, this is definitely the book for you. Ms. Burke does a fantastic job highlighting both the high and low points in the lives of these two very different women, making each of them feel completely authentic in the process. Plus, it’s an utterly gripping thriller, making it a book I’m very happy to have read.