The new novel from an established chronicler of family crises explores secrets and bonds connecting two orphaned sisters and the “very distantly related” woman who raised them.
Charlotte Gold is the serious older sibling, characterized by shyness and smarts; Lucy is 18 months younger, less academic but prettier and a live wire. Orphaned when Lucy is 5, the sisters find a new home in Waltham, Massachusetts, with Iris, who they think is their aunt though in fact she’s their half sister. Leavitt’s (Family, 2014, etc.) 11th novel reconfigures some themes familiar from her recent work—parenting, disappearance, death—into a solid, sympathetic tale with few surprises except when it strays into thriller territory. Despite differing natures, all three women share the experience of isolation—Charlotte when she takes up her scholarship to Brandeis only to find herself lonely and anxious; Lucy when she absconds at age 16 with a teacher, William, and settles into a numbingly solitary routine in a remote corner of Pennsylvania; and Iris in the early days of her impulsive marriage to a kindly soldier with a secret. They all take turns in the spotlight, but it’s Charlotte who eventually comes to the fore as she explores the enigma of her sister’s actions, connecting in the process with Patrick, Lucy’s only friend in Pennsylvania and a man with a “past.” Leavitt does a confident, efficient job of assembling her characters and moving them along their trajectories, yet there’s a sense of mechanical accomplishment to it all. Her real fascination is with sifting inner landscapes, tracking the suffering and fulfillment of her ensemble. Everything else (including the early 1970s setting) reads like a means to an end.
A capable, readable, empathetic novel, yet its impact is minimal.