Book Review: The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Title: The Good Sister
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 13, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the outside, everyone might think Fern and Rose are as close as twin sisters can be: Rose is the responsible one and Fern is the quirky one. But the sisters are devoted to one another and Rose has always been Fern’s protector from the time they were small.

Fern needed protecting because their mother was a true sociopath who hid her true nature from the world, and only Rose could see it. Fern always saw the good in everyone. Years ago, Fern did something very, very bad. And Rose has never told a soul. When Fern decides to help her sister achieve her heart’s desire of having a baby, Rose realizes with growing horror that Fern might make choices that can only have a terrible outcome. What Rose doesn’t realize is that Fern is growing more and more aware of the secrets Rose, herself, is keeping. And that their mother might have the last word after all.

I have not been disappointed in a Sally Hepworth book yet, and The Good Sister is no exception! Talk about a page-turner! I couldn’t put the book down, and finished this compelling story in one day.

Rose and Fern are adult sisters who’ve only had each other to rely on for as long as they can remember. Rose is calm and responsible and protective; Fern has sensory issues and struggles to understand the nuances of interpersonal communications, completing missing nonvisual cues and unable to take words as anything but literal.

When Rose shares with Fern her heartache over infertility, Fern decides to have a baby for Rose. And when she meets a sweet guy at the library where she works, Fern realizes that he’s a good candidate for the baby’s father.

Things don’t always go as expected, and as Fern becomes attached to the man she calls Wally, Rose becomes uneasy about the relationship and the feeling that Fern is pulling away from her.

Man, this book is hard to talk about without entering spoiler territory!

Told through Rose’s diary entries and Fern’s first-person narration, we learn bits and pieces about the sisters’ bond, their painful childhood, and their memories of their mother. We also learn more about why and how Fern became so dependent on Rose, and why neither of them consider Fern to be reliable or trustworthy.

It’s only as we get deeper into the story that we start to realize that neither sister is telling the whole story, and that what we’re hearing might not be the true picture of certain key events. Puzzling out the pieces and figuring out what’s true and what’s a lie makes this an incredibly engrossing read.

I especially loved Fern’s character. She’s unusual and has certain needs when it comes to interacting with the world, but she’s also very loving in her own odd way. And hey, she’s a librarian! And a really great one — despite her outward prickliness and tendency to ignore people who ask for help with the library photocopier, she’s terrific at helping people find what they need, whether it’s the right book or a bit of distraction, a way to calm down or even just some basic toiletries so they can use the public showers.

The plot of The Good Sister has some very clever twists and turns, and honestly, I just could not stop reading once I started. I won’t say more about the story, because it’s just too much fun to experience it without advance clues or information. Sally Hepworth has written yet another engrossing story with memorable characters, and I heartily enjoyed it. Don’t miss The Good Sister!

Book Review: The Mother-In-Law by Sally Hepworth

 

A twisty, compelling novel about one woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law that ends in murder…

From the moment Lucy met her husband’s mother, Diana, she was kept at arm’s length. Diana was exquisitely polite, and properly friendly, but Lucy knew that she was not what Diana envisioned. But who could fault Diana? She was a pillar of the community, an advocate for social justice who helped female refugees assimilate to their new country. Diana was happily married to Tom, and lived in wedded bliss for decades. Lucy wanted so much to please her new mother-in-law.

That was five years ago.

Now, Diana has been found dead, a suicide note near her body. Diana claims that she no longer wanted to live because of a battle with cancer.

But the autopsy finds no cancer.
The autopsy does find traces of poison and suffocation.
Who could possibly want Diana dead?
Why was her will changed at the eleventh hour to disinherit both of her adult children and their spouses?

With Lucy’s secrets getting deeper and her relationship with her mother-in-law growing more complex as the pages turn, this new novel from Sally Hepworth is sure to add to her growing legion of fans.

The Mother-In-Law kept me guessing all the way to the end. What a ride!

Through chapters that alternate between the past and the present. we learn about Lucy’s highly charged relationship with her mother-in-law. Lucy’s mother died while Lucy was still young, and she’d hoped that Diana would be like a second mother to her — embracing, warm, someone to share love and secrets and confidences with. Diana is none of these things — a stiff, proper, upper class woman who seems more focused on the refugee women she helps than on her own children. And every time Lucy thinks they’ve finally made a connection, Diana’s coldness or insensitive comments push Lucy away one more time.

We also get chapters from Diana’s perspective, showing us the other side of the story. Diana would be no one’s definition of warm and cuddly, but by showing her background and her thoughts, we gain an understanding of why she behaves as she does, and how her internal thought processes run in very different lines that what’s obvious from the outside.

As the story opens, Lucy and her husband Ollie get the news that Diana is dead. While it initially appears to be a suicide, there is enough contradictory evidence at the scene to cast doubt on that assumption. Was it murder? If so, who would have a reason to want Diana dead? And why was Diana keeping so many secrets — about her health, and about her intentions for her fortune?

This book is completely absorbing and fascinating. Diana comes across as very unlikable at the start, but as we get to know her, we start to see how her core beliefs stem from the challenges and struggles she experienced as a young woman, and we see how her unwillingness to help her grown children comes not from being miserly, but from trying to get them to work for what they want. At the same time, I can easily imagine how painful it must have been for Lucy to constantly hope for a closeness that just wasn’t available to her, and the hurt she experienced as she perceived herself as being rebuffed and belittled time and time again.

I’ve read several other books by this author, all just as compelling and full of complex characters. The Mother-In-Law is a terrific read — highly recommended!

For more by this author, check out my reviews of:

The Things We Keep (my favorite!)
The Family Next Door
The Mother’s Promise
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The details:

Title: The Mother-In-Law
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 23, 2019
Length: 347 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

The small suburb of Pleasant Court lives up to its name. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows their neighbours, and children play in the street.

Isabelle Heatherington doesn’t fit into this picture of family paradise. Husbandless and childless, she soon catches the attention of three Pleasant Court mothers.

But Ange, Fran and Essie have their own secrets to hide. Like the reason behind Ange’s compulsion to control every aspect of her life. Or why Fran won’t let her sweet, gentle husband near her new baby. Or why, three years ago, Essie took her daughter to the park – and returned home without her.

As their obsession with their new neighbour grows, the secrets of these three women begin to spread – and they’ll soon find out that when you look at something too closely, you see things you never wanted to see.

 

My Thoughts:

The Family Next Door is a quick read about a neighborhood teeming with secrets. The three women at the center of the story, Essie, Fran, and Ange, are all wives and mothers, and each has her own set of problems and worries that she keeps hidden away behind a facade of domestic bliss. It’s Isabelle’s arrival in the neighborhood that kicks off the cascade of revelations, as secrets come out and lives are upended.

The book is fast-paced, and while some of the secrets may be simpler to guess, the big reveal at the end is shocking and very unexpected. I enjoyed the characters, although overall the tone of the book was a bit too Desperate Housewives for my taste.

For readers who enjoy dramas about marriage, family, lies, and life-long secrets, this will make a great choice for summer beach reading.

Interested in this author? Check out my review of other books by Sally Hepworth:
The Things We Keep
The Mother’s Promise

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The details:

Title: The Family Next Door
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: March 6, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Mother’s Promise by Sally Hepworth

mothers-promiseKeep your Kleenex handy before picking up The Mother’s Promise.

The Mother’s Promise is the story of an unusual yet tightly connected mother and daughter, and the two women who enter their inner circle.

Alice is a 40-year-old single mother who receives the dreaded news that she has ovarian cancer and requires immediate surgery. Zoe is her 15-year-old daughter, a smart girl who’s practically crippled by her overwhelming social anxiety disorder. There’s no one else in their lives — no close friends, no relatives apart from Alice’s alcoholic brother. Zoe’s father has never been in the picture, and Zoe knows nothing about him.

Kate is the oncology nurse looking after Alice. Kate is married to a wonderful man and has two too-good-to-be-true teen-aged stepchildren, but her happy marriage is now on the verge of crumbling under the stress of infertility treatments and multiple miscarriages.

(Do we see where this is going yet? In this case, unpredictability may be overrated. More on this later…)

The fourth character in this circle is Sonja, the social worker assigned to Alice’s case, who steps in to make sure that Alice gets the support she needs as well as to make sure that Zoe has a roof over her head and someone to care for her when Alice’s condition worsens. Sonja, of course, has her own set of hidden problems and pains.

The novel shows these four women coming together, all with their own inner turmoil and emotional trauma, and finding healing and support through each others’ helping hands. The story unfolds via chapters told from all four points of view, so we get insights into what it feels like to be in their shoes.

In Zoe’s case, this is particularly affecting. Zoe’s situation is pure, utter agony. She’s so debilitated by her social anxiety that she can never speak in class, feels ashamed every time she walks down the school hallway, and agonizes over other kids’ opinions to such an extent that , for example, she never allows herself to eat in public for fear that she’ll do something embarrassing and everyone will stare or laugh at her. Being in Zoe’s mind is exhausting and sad, but also fascinating. Here’s a girl with so much to offer, and she just can’t do the things that will help her fit in, no matter how hard she tries. Her mother really and truly is all she has, and it’s terrifying for both of them to realize that her entire life is dependent on Alice being there.

For Alice, the diagnosis comes completely out of the blue (as is so often the case with ovarian cancer). In a particularly moving scene, Alice hears the doctor and nurse pouring information out at her about the tests and the results and the treatment, and yet can’t even recognize the word “cancer” as applied to herself until about the 3rd or 4th time it’s said in her presence. Alice is committed to being positive, but her positivity crosses into denial over the seriousness of her condition and her poor prognosis.

Kate and Sonja’s storylines, while part of the novel, get less time than Alice and Zoe’s, but they each still emerge as individuals with their own lives, worries, and needs.

So what did I think of The Mother’s Promise? Hold on, let me wipe that last tear and then I’ll let you know…

Obviously, this is a heart-wrenching, gut-punching book. That should be clear from the start. It’s about a single mother with ovarian cancer — let’s not kid ourselves about this having a happy ending.

As I mentioned from the start, the resolution of the story is easy to see coming from very early on — but that in no way diminishes the impact. The importance thing in The Mother’s Promise is the journey, not the destination. Zoe in particular is the one to watch — there’s no instant cure for her social anxiety disorder, but she makes small steps toward breaking out of her old ways, and even manages to push past a truly awful moment of humiliation that any teen, even without anxiety issues, would have an extremely hard time getting over. It’s lovely to see Zoe’s determination to try, and enlightening to be inside her head and to learn what it feels like to be such a wounded, vulnerable soul.

Kate is lovely. I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s a woman who loses all of the dreams of the kind of future she wants, and yet finds a way to be open and caring and nurturing. It’s a beautiful story arc, and I wish we got to spend more time with her. Maybe a sequel??

I have mixed feelings about Alice. Obviously, she’s worthy of sympathy and compassion, and her ordeal is horrible. I just wish the storytelling around Alice was a bit more consistent. The chapters told from her perspective are quite moving, of course, yet we cut away to other people’s perspectives at times when I wanted to know how Alice was feeling, phyically and emotionally, such as during her initial hospitalization and recovery from surgery.

As for Sonja — her story weaves in some themes that are important and worthy of attention, but at the same time, she feels extraneous to the story. Again, I don’t want to give too much away here, so I’ll be vague. It’s not that Sonja’s sections aren’t interesting. I just felt that you could remove her pieces from the novel, and the core of the story would not lose anything. Perhaps this is just trying to fit one too many story threads into one novel. It’s a good thread, but unnecessary.

I started The Mother’s Promise knowing I’d probably dissolve at some point while reading it, and that’s a pretty accurate picture of what happened. Mothers and daughters? Cancer? Helplessly watching a parent suffer? Children with no one to care for them? Oh, this book knew exactly how to push my buttons! Waterworks galore.

But still — The Mother’s Promise is a beautiful book despite all the heartache. The relationships are complex and feel real, with fragile people strengthened by their unbreakable emotional bonds. Some tearjerker books feel too deliberate, as if the author sat down and said, “Hmm. How can I make my readers cry?”. Not The Mother’s Promise. Yes, there will be tears, but they’re genuine and feel earned.

Definitely read The Mother’s Promise. It’s powerful and well-written, and will make you look at your loved ones with new, appreciate eyes. And, definitely worth mentioning, the book does an admirable job of showing the power of women caregivers, nurses, and nurterers — people who change lives on a daily basis. Kudos to the author for such a sensitive and fine portrayal of roles that are often overlooked.

For more by this author, check out her amazing (and equally heart-wrenching) previous novel, The Things We Keep (review).

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The details:

Title: The Mother’s Promise
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: February 21, 2017
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Things We Keep by Sally Hepworth

The Things We KeepLove, loss, and connection are the threads that bind together this moving story set in a residential home for seniors.

Anna Forster, age 38, knows that her early-onset Alzheimer’s can only get worse, especially after seeing her mother deteriorate rapidly with the same condition years earlier. With her own agreement, Anna’s twin Jack checks her into Rosalind House, a small private care facility that can keep her safe and provide for her needs. As an added bonus, there is one other younger resident there, so Anna won’t be alone among the elderly.

Luke (or Young Guy, as Anna thinks of him, having lost her ability to master names) is suffering from a different type of early-onset dementia that impacts his speech and language abilities — but despite their challenges, the two quickly connect and form a bond that strengthens day to day.

Meanwhile, in another plot thread, Eve Bennett is newly widowed, a young single mother struggling to provide for her daughter after the scandal of her husband’s involvement in a massive Ponzi scheme costs them everything. Eve had gone to culinary school years earlier before marrying Richard, and she falls back on her cooking skills in order to secure a job as cook and housekeeper at Rosalind House. As Eve tries to rebuild her life, she’s increasingly drawn to Anna and Luke, now forcibly kept apart by the facility’s staff. What has happened to require them to be locked into their rooms at night? And why does Anna, in a rare moment of lucidity, grab Eve’s hand and ask for help?

Told through the points of view of Anna, Eve, and Eve’s young daughter Clementine, the shifting narrative voices unite to paint a picture of this world that can only be partially seen and understood by any one of the three.

Anna’s voice is the most compelling, and by necessity, also the least reliable. Anna is relatively coherent when she first arrives at Rosalind House, but as her disease worsens, her narration develops gaps as well. She loses individual words, cannot tell which door leads to a closet and which to the hallway, and has less and less tolerance for noise or sudden, unexpected stimuli. As she narrates the story of her time at the home, the reader is drawn into the horror and terror of a young woman feeling her mind slip away, wanting desperately to hold onto what matters, but knowing that she’s in a losing war against time.

No one trusts anything I say. If I point out, for example, that the toast is burning or that it’s time for the six o’clock news, people marvel. How about that? Is is time for the six o’clock news. Well done, Anna.

At the beginning, I was reluctant to switch over to the Eve chapters, not quite seeing the point of her storyline or why we needed this plot thread, reminiscent of both the real-life Bernie Madoff scandal and the movie Blue Jasmine. Bit by bit, though, I was drawn into Eve’s story as well, coming to care about her and her daughter and their struggle to move forward and rebuild. Beyond that, it ‘s quickly apparent that Eve is a necessary key to the plot as a whole, and a very clever choice on the part of the author. Because of Anna’s condition, we can’t get a full picture of events from her alone. Eve provides another set of eyes and ears, a caring and sensitive witness to Anna and Luke’s story, and ultimately, a catalyst for helping them hold onto the shreds of happiness they’ve managed to find amidst their own personal tragedies.

The timeline of the plot weaves back and forth between past and present, with Anna’s story beginning with her arrival at Rosalind House, and Eve’s starting fifteen months later. Between the two, we start to learn what happened to Anna and Luke, with Eve’s current interactions with them finally filling in some of the blanks.

The Things We Keep is heartbreaking yet not altogether bleak. Seeing Anna’s decline is painful, and I can only imagine the horror of watching this strong, vibrant young woman slowly lose herself to a disease that can’t be stopped. At the same time, her connection with Luke is lovely and unexpected, and I couldn’t help being moved by this surprising discovery of grace in the middle of loss.

I also appreciated the wider cast of characters. The other residents of Rosalind House form a background of moments of friendship, love, beauty, and sorrow, as we learn more about their lives, their loves, and what they still cherish. As one of the elderly residents explains to Eve:

“When you get to my age [ … ] you don’t waste time with regrets. In the end, you just remember the moments of joy. When all is said and done, those are the things we keep.”

The Things We Keep is a sad story, beautifully told. While the tragedy of Anna’s decline can’t be lessened, there are rays of hope and joy, both as Anna’s story comes to an end and as Eve and her daughter finally arrive at a new beginning.  I highly recommend this book, and look forward to reading the author’s previous novel, The Secrets of Midwives.

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The details:

Title: The Things We Keep
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: January 19, 2016
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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