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The Sisters: A Novel
by Nancy Jensen

Published: 2012-10-02
Paperback : 352 pages
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Family secrets reverberate for generations in one of the "Best Novels of 2011" (Kirkus Reviews) 

Growing up without a mother in hardscrabble Kentucky in the 1920s, Bertie Fischer and her older sister, Mabel, have only each other—with perhaps a sweetheart for Bertie waiting in the ...

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Family secrets reverberate for generations in one of the "Best Novels of 2011" (Kirkus Reviews)

Growing up without a mother in hardscrabble Kentucky in the 1920s, Bertie Fischer and her older sister, Mabel, have only each other—with perhaps a sweetheart for Bertie waiting in the wings. But on the day that Bertie graduates from eighth grade, good intentions go terribly wrong, setting off a chain of misunderstandings that will change the lives of the next three generations.

What happens when nothing turns out as you planned? From the Depression through the second world war and Vietnam, and smaller events both tragic and joyful, Bertie and Mabel forge unexpected identities that are shaped by a past that no one ever talks about. Gorgeously written, with extraordinary insight and emotional truth, Nancy Jensen’s brilliant first novel, The Sisters, illuminates the far-reaching power of family and family secrets.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


June 1927
Juniper, Kentucky
It was a lovely dress, soft and pink as a cloud at dawn. Bertie admired the way the chiffon draped from her neck in long, light, curving folds, seeming to narrow her square shoulders, and it pleased her to imagine how the skirt would swish around her calves when she walked to the stage to get her eighth-grade diploma, but she was most fond of the two buttons, small silver roses, that fastened the sleeve bands just below each elbow. Two months Mabel had worked for the dress, going into Kendall’s an hour early every day, fixing it with Mrs. Kendall so, come commencement week, Bertie could choose any one she wanted. Bertie twirled before the mirror, then lifted her hair to see how it would look pinned up, and, yes, suddenly she was taller, almost elegant. She couldn’t remember feeling pretty before. In this dress, she did, and it was wonderful. She even felt a little sorry for Mabel. Her sister had always been beautiful—slim and doll-like, with big eyes and glistening bobbed hair, Juniper’s Clara Bow—so Mabel couldn’t appreciate the wonder of suddenly feeling transformed, caterpillar to butterfly. ... view entire excerpt...

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 era 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 photograph-ing 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 chronologi¬cal, interlocking narratives, sometimes with strik-ingly different perspectives of the same events. In what ways does this structure reflect the experi¬ence 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 imag¬ine either of them acting differently? Did you find the conclusion satisfying?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

A Conversation with Nancy Jensen

Who are your favorite authors?

This is always a hard question for me to answer, as I tend to have favorite works rather than favorite authors. Rarely do I love a writer’s entire body of work, though I may love a few particular pieces, but if pressed, I’d say James Joyce, Jane Austen, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot.

Who has had a major influence on your writing?

Teachers have had the most direct influence, most significantly Sena Jeter Naslund and Sydney Lea. I also feel strongly influenced by Scott Russell Sanders. Though I never studied with him directly, a couple of brief meetings with him—spread across twenty years, supported in between times by reading and admiring his work for his clarity of expression— make him count for me as a significant influence.

What word or words do you always have trouble spelling?

It doesn’t happen when I write by hand, but I find it very funny (and perhaps a wee bit Freudian) that I consistently type the word writing as writhing!

Which of your characters would you want to be and why?

I’d like to be as gifted, as brave, as centered, as open, and as generous as my character Grace in The Sisters.

Which author would you invite to dinner?

First I’d have to resurrect him, but I’d love to invite George Bernard Shaw to dinner. Having done so, however, I suspect I’d regret the invitation because I’d know I’d never be able to keep up with his intellect, his wit, or his perfect turns of phrase.

What is the quality you most like in yourself?

I like that animals nearly always immediately trust me.

What are the qualities you most like in your friends?

Intelligence that they don’t ever take too seriously.

Would you be lying if you said your works were not autobiographical?

No, I wouldn’t be lying any more than a bird would be lying if it said its nest was its unique creation and not a collection of identifiable bits from my yard—a knot of cat hair, a stem from a maple leaf, a bit of string from a package, a finger of dryer lint.

What is your favorite book?

Hmm ...that’s one of those “desert island” questions. I love many, many books, but I can’t claim a favorite any more than I could say which of my pets is my favorite. If forced to grab either my favorite book or favorite pet in fleeing a burning house, I’d wind up burning to death because I couldn’t choose.

What book would you read three times?

I’ve read lots of books three, five, eight, ten times or more, but many of them I’ve read because I teach and so I assign certain books in particular classes every few years. Just for myself, I’m sure I’ll read Middlemarch a few more times before I die, as well as An American Tragedy and all of Jane Austen.

Excerpted from the “20 Questions Author Interview”© 2011 The Reading Roomtm

Book Club Recommendations

Plenty of topics for discussion
by ncvlib (see profile) 10/03/12
The author Nancy Jensen agreed to speak with our group via speaker phone chat. Her imput provided great insight into the decisions and lives of the Sisters and their families.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "The Sisters"by ncvlib (see profile) 10/03/12

Good debut novel about a misunderstanding between two sisters and how their lives are affected.

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