The intense love shared by two sisters is challenged by crises in Welch’s debut novel, set in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Ithaca, New York, during the mid-20th century.
Shannon and Eliza Malone, born less than 11 months apart, were inseparable as children. The younger sibling, 17-year-old Eliza, is taller and more scholastically successful, and she has a social confidence that Shannon wishes she could emulate. Their mother, Nell, has always been more attentive to Eliza; meanwhile, Eliza “wished she could intervene and overwhelm Shannon with the security she craved but never got from the very same mother.” The girls have different dreams for their futures, but their devotion to each other is total. Then, in August 1946, Shannon contracts tuberculosis and is hospitalized for 10 months. Eliza begins seriously dating David Whitaker, a respectable young man, and in September, she enters her freshman year at a local college. One night, near the end of December, while the girls’ parents are at the hospital watching over Shannon, David’s war hero cousin, Patrick Whitaker, attacks Eliza and rapes her. She tells no one what happened, but the assault results in a pregnancy. Ashamed and traumatized, she still refuses to reveal the truth, even to Shannon. After the baby is born in October 1947, Eliza transfers to Cornell University, breaking off all contact with her family members. In skillful, straightforward prose, Welch sets her character-driven narrative against the backdrop of postwar societal changes. Along the way, she implicitly contrasts the more traditional St. Paul society with the nascent progressive movements in Ithaca. The addictive melodrama weaves a tale of secrets, misunderstandings, resentments, and squandered opportunities for reconciliation that keep the sisters apart for almost two decades. Shannon, the more creative of the two siblings, is a more fully drawn character than Eliza, and readers get to know her more intimately through her unmailed letters. A strangely ethereal epilogue offers a mostly satisfying conclusion, even if it leaves a few questions unanswered.
An engaging and poignant historical novel.