The Sometimes Sisters
Carolyn Brown continues her streak of winning, heartfelt novels with The Sometimes Sisters, a story of estranged sisters and frustrated romance. There’s an uncomfortable undercurrent in the peaceful waters, both within the book’s narrative and without.
We open on the scene of tragedy – the passing of the spirited and well-loved Annie Clancy. Her best friend Zedekiah “Zed” Williamson holds her in his arms as she passes; he’s spent his life adoring Annie and thus with great solemnity promises to fulfill her dying wish to bring her granddaughters together to run her small resort situated on a lake in North Texas.
It’s a task easier said than done. All three Clancy stepsisters have scattered to the winds in their maturity and, after a ten-year long estrangement resulting from one last summer visit, now approach each other warily. Dana, Harper and Tawny used to call themselves the ‘sometimes sisters’ because those magical summers spent with Granny Anne were the only time they’d ever see one another all year, as Dana, the product of her father’s teenage fling, lived with her wild mother year-round while Harper and Tawny were the result of Gavin Clancy’s later marriage. The difference between their point of origin causes years of resentment to build up between the three of them.
In their contemporary lives, each sister has a different obstacle standing in the way of their peace and financial success. Harper is living hand-to-mouth tending bar across the Texas panhandle and is dealing with the fact that her alcoholism has left her insolvent; she’s running away from a teenage mistake, and always felt like the ugly-duckling middle child compared to her beautiful and intelligent sisters, whom she believes judge her for her lifestyle. Dana, a strong-minded ranch hand raising her teenaged daughter alone, has always felt like the family outsider, a Cinderella figure made illegitimate by birth and unacknowledged as a Clancy by her father. She considers her other sisters spoiled and prissy, presumes they like to look down on her, and plans to run the resort’s convenience store alone. And Tawny, the youngest, has been forced to quit college, her previous lavish lifestyle in a sorority house and her inheritance having been cut off by her mother due to a mysterious transgression. She struggles with feelings of guilt over her lack of contact with her grandmother in the last months of her illness, and resents Tawny for being her mother’s favorite, and Dana her bossiness.
The reading of Annie’s will – in which she bequeaths her resort to all three sisters – changes everything. Dana will run the store, Tawny will do the bookkeeping and Harper is put in charge of the kitchen at the café. Zed will stay on as long as he wishes, as will Flora, the woman who cleans the chain of rentable cabins by the lake. The three women have little else going for them – they choose to stay as well. But can these three learn how to live together, deal with their pasts, secrets, the promise of the future – and their own grandmother’s hidden past?
There’s one thing I’ve come to admire about Carolyn Brown’s stories; they manage to capture the grit and joy of small-town life. Her characters, their experiences, and their backgrounds all feel real, grounded and authentic It feels as lived in as a solid, small town, where there’s country music in the air, sweets on the counter, and swarms of fishermen trying to get supplies at the bait shop. The girls bond on porch swings and over bar brawls – which is fitting given the combination of cozy and grit the book has going for it.
Each of the sisters has a distinct personality, a different kind of romance, a unique secret and a distinct goal. Harper still yearns for her childhood sweetheart Wyatt, from whom she’s kept a deep secret after their teenage relationship burnt out. Dana falls for Payton O’Reily, a bad-boy type with whom she experiences a sexual awakening and then has to face the disapproval of his daughter and Brook’s censure; and Tawny is annoyed when her sisters butt in to keep her from sleeping with Marcus, an old friend of Dana’s who is fourteen years Tawny’s senior and happens to be Brook’s history teacher. All of these romances move at a nice pace and are distinct, and the plot unravels carefully, revealing a myriad of secrets and old wounds to be healed. In typical Brown fashion they are – with a smile and a heap of sugar and a bit of inspirational talk (the first Brown I read, The Strawberry Hearts Diner, had some inspirational moments but this has a stronger spiritual thought-line than that one did).
There’s only one reason I’m slightly dinking this novel – the unfortunate undercurrent of very old-fashioned narrative choices made with Zed’s character, who is a beloved uncle figure that only exists as a reflection of what he meant to Annie and a support for the girls. He has no other family currently about, no interests outside of the resort and teaching the girls life-lessons; indeed he seems to be suicidally driving himself toward death to join Annie. The author makes nervous inroads about his blackness, about what it means for him to so love a pack of blonde girls who call him uncle, and ultimately why the nature of his relationship with Annie had to be so circumspect and obscured, but never wholly makes real points or digs about in the dark undercurrent that’s risen from what’s been suggested.
Overall, The Sometimes Sisters isn’t quite as heart-grabbing as The Strawberry Hearts Diner, but it still provides a nice diversion for the reader.