Two semiestranged sisters spend a few days together in Sweden-born Olsson’s (The Memory of Love, 2011, etc.) latest minimalist, meditative novel involving women sharing secrets.
Emma, 42, belatedly accepts a two-year-old invitation from her older sister Maria, 48, to visit her in Spain. Maria made the offer in their native Sweden in a moment of unexpected (and short-lived) happiness after their mother’s funeral. Now Maria, who narrates the novel, is vexed to have her self-imposed solitary life in her bay-view cottage interrupted and wonders how she and Emma will fill their time together. She feels she has never really known Emma. Although they lived together until Maria left home, Emma had a different father. The sister Maria truly loved was her identical twin, Amanda, whose immediate and continuing affection for Emma as a baby and small child made Maria jealous: “I did not want to share Amanda with Emma.” Maria, who never married and has always been self-supporting and independent, has always assumed that stay-at-home Emma, who raised her two children in a lovely home with her husband, Olof, has had an easier life. So it is a surprise when Emma tearfully announces that Olof has left her and admits that she feels she has “drifted along aimlessly.” With her cigarettes and bitten-down nails, Emma is not the sunny, carefree woman Maria expected. Wearing her pain more openly, she is the instigator asking questions as the women begin to share the particulars of their lives and their very different views of their childhood, their parents, and each other. In formally polite conversation structured around small moments—drinking coffee, sharing meals, taking a boat excursion with Maria’s artist neighbor—the sisters circle closer, finally able to confront the great loss that shaped each of them. Allowing herself to care for her sister, Maria also finally faces the regrets, grief, and loneliness she has avoided.
The spare understatement and constricted focus can feel suffocating at times, but this story of sisterly ambivalence—and love—rings movingly true.