I don’t have a sister. (Well, I really don’t know – I could have one. I could have several. As an adoptee, I know anything is possible.) I’ve always wanted a sister, although when I tell this to friends who have sisters, they shake their heads vehemently and say, “No, you do NOT.”
Grass, meet Always Greener.
When I read books like Two Sisters, I admit that I question the wisdom of wishing I had a sister. Muriel certainly seems like she would have been better off if she hadn’t had one.
Separated by eight years and considerable emotional distance, Pia and Muriel are about as emotionally connected as Israel and Syria. Less, even. Pia, all icy blonde, thin perfection came first, and it’s almost as if her mother Lidia didn’t have room in her heart to love another daughter. After Pia, Logan arrived, the only son, a sort of “gift” to his father Owen.
And now, Pi, thirty-one, married, living in a gorgeous Connecticut home, and the mother of a ten-year-old daughter, has asked Muriel to meet her for lunch in the city. Muriel can’t say no, as much as she wishes she could; we know that this is a ubiquitous problem for her, this inability to say no to anyone in her family. Pia shows up with a new scarf for Muriel; it is nothing Muriel would have picked out for herself, nor is it something Muriel wants to wear. But Pia ties it around her sister’s neck, coos over its loveliness, and the two head off for lunch.
Muriel is utterly confused. This is not the Pia she knows. Nor is the woman who gets drunk at lunch and then vomits in a toilet or the woman who asks Muriel her opinion about a dress Pia wants to buy for herself. THAT is not Pia.
But then Muriel asks: why are you here? And Pia answers.
We have seen this storyline before, the sort of deathbed rapprochement between two embattled siblings. Mary Hogan takes us for a different spin, though. Pia, ever selfish till the end, attempts to absolve herself of her sins by including Muriel in picking out her final frock. She may tell Muriel that the end is nigh, but afterwards? Does she let Muriel in? Does she behave in the way a woman who truly wants forgiveness behaves?
Then there are Lidia and Owen, two positively awful parents. Owen’s is the sin of omission; he removes himself from his daughters’ lives and makes no apologies for doing so. He isn’t so much stoic as unaware, completely by choice. He and Logan bond over soldering copper piping, but his daughters? They’re Lidia’s to worry over.
Lidia is, quite simply put, a loathsome woman. She openly prefers Pia, so openly that she continually drums that Pia is perfect and Muriel is an unwanted blight on the family. Are we meant to forgive Pia her own bitchiness because she was treated like a gilded princess? Should we forgive Lidia because she was not able to be with the true love of her life and had to settle for Owen?
I couldn’t. I don’t know if Mary Hogan wanted me to, but I could not forgive either woman, especially not Lidia. As Pia herself says to Muriel, I cannot imagine a mother saying some of the things Lidia did to her child. I don’t care how much her life did not turn out as she wanted. There is no justification.
Muriel recasts her life (she is a casting assistant, in fact) continually, envisioning what relationship she and Pia might have had if this were different or that were better. She comes back to reality, though, realizing that life is what it is, and all she can hope to do is adjust successfully.
God plays a role here as well. Lidia and Pia engage in a cafeteria-style Christianity, in which they pick and choose which dishes fit their needs best. Toward the end of the novel, Muriel calls them out for this, if only in her head. God is consistent and constant; if you’re in, you must be all in, not just in for what suits you. Muriel attempts to understand her mother and sister’s religion, but she discovers that their God is not a god she wants to worship.
Of course, more than anything, this is the story of two sisters. There is much we are not told about Pia; she begins and ends more of a mystery than someone we understand. She has a cruel core, and her cruelty is always directed at Muriel. Lidia, at least, occasionally fires her laser-like evil toward Owen, although she reserves most of her animus for Muriel. I could not imagine being Muriel. How she managed to survive her childhood and emerge a woman who has charted her own course, even if it appears lonely and somewhat unfulfilling, it’s hers. Lesser women would have crumbled.
Which brings me to what bothers me about this book: it is uneven. Lidia’s extreme dislike for Muriel is confounding. Yes, we know why she prefers Pia, but why the bald hatred for Muriel? And why the emotional mess at the end of the book? Where did that come from? Nor, for that matter, do we understand how Pia morphed into a woman who would get married and have a child of her own. When Pia tells Muriel that looking at her daughter, she can see proof of God’s love, it does not humanize her. Rather, if confuses us because we had no idea Pia had such a wellspring of positive emotion within her. No foundation has been laid for it, other than perhaps a need for a happy(ish) ending. It also seems completely out of character for Lidia to behave at she does, and that sort of dishonesty dos not ring true to readers. In the first part of the novel, we spend a little time in Owen’s head, and then we leave. Why? Why not let us revisit him later in the book? Are those few chapters intended to tell us what we need to know about him? If so, they are insufficient. Owen says that he will not be a divorced man, and I want to know why.
However. For all of those frustrations, I enjoyed this book. When Muriel asks someone why no one loved her, my heart broke, and I admit that I cried, largely because I was so emotionally invested in her. I couldn’t help but be, perhaps because I could relate to her on several levels. No, I do not have a sister, but I know what it’s like to be the Muriel of the family.
Mary Hogan writes descriptively and emotionally, and she pulls you into her story. I just wish there had been more consistency with some of her characters.