Sisters (Jensen)

The Sisters
Nancy Jensen, 2011
St. Martin's Press
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780312542702

Growing up in hardscrabble Kentucky in the 1920s, with their mother dead and their stepfather an ever-present threat, Bertie Fischer and her older sister Mabel have no one but each other—with perhaps a sweetheart for Bertie waiting in the wings. But on the day that Bertie receives her eighth-grade diploma, good intentions go terribly wrong. A choice made in desperate haste sets off a chain of misunderstandings that will divide the sisters and reverberate through three generations of women.

What happens when nothing turns out as you planned? From the Depression through World War II and Vietnam, and smaller events both tragic and joyful, Bertie and Mabel forge unexpected identities that are shaped by unspeakable secrets. As the sisters have daughters and granddaughters of their own, they discover that both love and betrayal are even more complicated than they seem.  

Gorgeously written, with extraordinary insight and emotional truth, Nancy Jensen’s powerful debut novel illuminates the far-reaching power of family and family secrets.

In the tradition of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, a dazzling debut novel about the family bonds that remain even when they seem irretrievably torn apart. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Nancy Jensen is a graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Northwest Review, Other Voices, Under the Sun, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, and Louisville Review, as well as in the anthology I to I: Life-Writing by Kentucky Feminists.

Since 2007, her work has been honored with an Artist Enrichment Grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, and two nominations for the Pushcart Prize. She shares her home with ten rescued cats and her dog, Gordy, who is her partner on a pet-therapy team visiting hospitals, nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and daycare centers. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews 
Like so many painful family stories, this one begins with a miscommunication.... Engrossing though all this is, Jensen’s strenuous manipulations, all done to keep the estranged sisters apart, can be maddening.... Nonetheless, Jensen’s portraits of these women are richly alive.... As the sisters continue to orbit away from each other, a new generation of remarkable women “raised up on secrets” takes center stage.... Here The Sisters tells a bigger story. The women change in accordance with the times, captured in vivid details.
Caroline Leavitt - New York Times

This first novel from Nancy Jensen is an extremely ambitious effort to recount American history during the 20th century...through the experiences and perceptions of women. It’s an interesting idea, but Jensen sketches her characters primarily by what they do, rather than what they think or feel. And these women, in general, don’t do very much.... Jensen can’t seem to get the car jump-started. These characters never come to life. The author writes in a foreward that her story is based on a mysterious 50-year estrangement between her grandma and a long-dead sister. But in this narrative, events seem not just mysterious but intractably implausible.
Carolyn See - Washington Post 

As the years pass, each [sister] nourishes a hidden sadness that reverberates through time as their daughters and granddaughters, "raised up on secrets," struggle with the deep-rooted consequences.... Jensen's likable story argues for openness and forgiveness between sisters, for their own sake and for the health of their families.
Anne Leslie - People

Fans of The Help will be beguiled by Jensen's debut novel. Set in rural Kentucky in the midst of the Depression, and inspired by Jensen's own family history, it centers on an incident that created a lifelong breach between two sisters, one that reverberates throughout three generations. It's a sweet but never saccharine tribute to the pull of family.
Whole Living

First-time novelist Jensen—tracing the lives of two sisters separated in their youth by a tragic misunderstanding—[has] an observant eye, adept characterization, and a keen grasp of social issues.
Publishers Weekly

All families have secrets, and those kept by the Fischer family are particularly shameful and life changing. In 1927, sisters Mabel and Bertie are separated for life when their stepfather commits suicide and Mabel runs off with Bertie's boyfriend.... Verdict: Set against the dramatic backdrop of American history from the Great Depression into the 21st century, this beautiful but disturbing debut novel, inspired partly by the author's own family history, will engage readers of well-written, thought-provoking women's fiction. —Andrea Kempf, formerly with Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, KS
Library Journal

(A Best Book of 2011.) A single tragic event shapes four generations of American women in this accomplished and poignant debut.... Encompassing the lives of women in the 20th century, this sprawling saga is tender and satisfying, with a heartbreaking end.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. There are many secrets in The Sisters, beginning with Mabel’s decision not to tell Bertie about Jim Butcher. In trying to understand her sister’s behavior, fourteen-year-old Bertie wonders if “the things she didn’t know were what kept her safe.” What secrets do other characters keep, and how do you think the secrets ultimately help or hurt their loved ones?

2. How does the period in which each woman comes of age affect her experience and shape her outlook on what is possible?

3. How do the main characters perceive loyalty? Betrayal? What do you think of their perceptions?

4. How do Bertie’s girlhood losses affect her daughters’ and granddaughters’ relationships with men?

5. Bertie, Alma, and Lynn are accused by other characters of being hard and cold. How do you see them? To what extent do you think they change in the course of the novel?

6. At the end of her life, Bertie struggles to cry out to Rainey and Lynn, “Forgive. Forgive.” Why do you believe some characters are able to forgive and others not? Do you believe everything can or should be forgiven?

7. What does the novel suggest about whether families are born or made?

8. When Daisy expresses her concern that Mabel is setting herself up for emotional pain by photographing young men bound for Vietnam, Mabel tells Daisy, “You can’t protect yourself from loss.” Do you think this is true? What happens to the characters in the novel, and to people in your experience, when they try?

9. In her interview with Ed Bradley, Mabel says, “I don’t think any real war [is ever over]—large, small, between countries, between people. Even the wars inside ourselves. Something always remains.” Do you agree—in the novel and/or in real life?

10. The Sisters is structured as a series of chronological, interlocking narratives, sometimes with strikingly different perspectives of the same events. In what ways does this structure reflect the experience of an individual within a family?

11. Bertie tells Grace, “Something can happen to change your life so sudden, you can’t get over it fast enough…And that changes things for them too, all in a line.” Do you think that happens in most people’s lives at one time or another? If so, is the chain reaction inevitable, or can someone choose to break the chain?

12. How were you affected when Bertie wrote Deceased on the letter from Mabel, and Mabel later decided not to follow up on Nick’s possible lead about Bertie’s whereabouts? Can you imagine either of them acting differently? Did you find the conclusion satisfying?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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