The Orphan Sister, by Gwendolen Gross. Simon and Schuster, 2011. 283 pp. 978-1-4516-2368-0.
... in which Clementine, one of a set of triplets, examines the relationships in her family after her father disappears and old family secrets are revealed.
Every now and then, you read a book where nothing much really happens, but the book is still completely engrossing and enjoyable to read. This is one of those books. Clementine Lord is one daughter in a set of triplets. Through a strange quirk, her two sisters are identical, while Clementine is fraternal. Although she shares a strong bond with her sisters Olivia and Odette, Clementine has always felt like something of an outsider. The three daughters grew up with a famous pediatric neurosurgeon for a father, and a picture-perfect housewife for a mother. Olivia and Odette went on to Harvard and had successful medical careers, both marrying high-achieving husbands and becoming pregnant at the same time. Clementine barely finishes college and floats through her 20s with little direction. One day, Clementine's father fails to show up for work, triggering a family crisis where Olivia has discovered a terrible secret about their father, Odette just wants him to come home, and Clementine is caught between rage and pity. In order to cope with her father's disappearance and betrayal, her sisters' advanced pregnancies, her mother's vacancy, and her friend Eli's romantic interest, Clementine retraces the events of her life to understand the place where she is today.
As a work of general fiction, this book is somewhat outside of my normal range of interests. I'm really glad I stepped outside of my comfort zone, though, because this turned out to be a really interesting read. Gwendolen Gross' writing style is such that Clementine's inner thoughts feel so real that you might think they're your own thoughts, and every now and then I found a passage that was so eloquently phrased I had to stop and think about it for a little while. Despite the fact that there aren't many big events in the book, the excellent writing propels the book forward.
In terms of plot, it's a pretty slow moving book, with most of the focus being characterization and the complex ties between each individual. The eventual revelation of their father's secret turns out to be kind of a let-down (with all of the build up, I was expecting something more earth shattering), but since the book is about relationships and not about the betrayal itself, that's not a big issue.
The entire book is told in two separate time periods: the present, where Clementine and her sisters are dealing with the fallout of their father's disappearance and his secrets, and the past, where Clementine relives parts of her childhood and her college years. Most of the events in the past were chosen because of personal significance to Clementine, like falling in love with a boy named Cameron in college and Cameron's sudden accidental death, meeting her friend Eli, moving to San Francisco in an effort to get her life back on track. Since we see everything in a first-person view from Clementine's perspective, it's very easy for the reader to feel like Clementine is a real person. Though she is no doubt a flawed person, she's a very sympathetic character to read about because Gross' writing allows the reader to feel everything Clementine feels, her love for Cameron and her all-consuming despair after his death, her rage at her father and her complicated relationships with her two sisters. Gross does a nice job of describing the ties between the sisters, and
the story is wrapped up in a way that gives the reader some resolution,
without having the ending feel overly cute and sentimental or overly
The relationships Clementine has with Odette and Olivia are some of the most important parts of the book, and are more complicated than the title would lead you to believe; Clementine knows Odette and Olivia just as well as they know each other, and although the two Os are identical to each other, each turns to Clementine first for different things. The interesting thing about the title The Orphan Sister is that while it seems to apply only to Clementine, it could easily to apply the title to either Odette or Olivia at various points, or even to other characters.
Recommended reading for lovers of general fiction, but not if you only like plot-driven books.