Mixed (Up) Reviews — II

The House on Cabot Ridge

By Fern Lepke 

Litehouse Press; 318 pp.

This deeply affecting novel tells the story of two sisters, Debra and Lanie, who were close in childhood but have grown apart into strong, independent women.

They live in separate worlds – Debra in St. Louis and Lanie in Aspen – but their lives are marked by striking similarities. Both have sacrificed careers for husbands and children. Both also have sacrificed goats, out of a shared but never explained fear of an eventual goat uprising. The two women silently shoulder the burdens of domestic life, with the exception of the time when Debra, a chronic sleepwalker, wakes up to her own screams while  trying to iron the wrinkles out of her stomach.

The sisters’ lives are brought together again one summer by the death of their mother, who ran  a bed and breakfast in a quaint seaside Massachusetts town. Until a new caretaker can be found, the sisters move in to continue the business, and in doing so rekindle their girlhood friendship. There is a touching scene in which Lanie, unable to sleep due to the sudden realization that she is a fiscal conservative, resurrects a childhood ritual of crouching in her closet and tapping on the wall, in a made-up language only she and her sister understand. But Lanie fails to take into account the architectural differences between this New England manse and the house where she and Debra grew up: Debra’s room is on the other side of the house, and she’d have trouble hearing the taps even if she weren’t running through town in her sleep, accusing mathematicians of disingenuousness and shrieking like a banshee. Lanie dies in a way that is sure to upset second-generation Lithuanians, and is posthumously diagnosed with spatial reasoning deficiencies; Debra gets some laughs at the funeral by futilely knocking call-and-response patterns on the closed casket.

Lepke, whose previous books include “Nyla’s Crevice” and “You Take the Barley,” charts the women’s lives with the precision of a dentist and the detachment of a falcon. “The House on Cabot Ridge” stands as a powerful and enduring testament to the bonds of sisterhood. It is also offers a nuanced meditation on the nature of the artist, as Lepke chronicles Debra’s development as a poet. Each chapter ends with her latest effort, and the book culminates in her mature manifesto, titled  “The Bison”:

            This morning I opened Mother’s drawer

            To find the hard candy had gone soft.

            Now I sit, forlorn,

            Entrenched in afternoon.

            Venting frustrations

            Sifting permutations.

            What was it Doctor Pilfrick said?

            “Go easy on the taffy.”

Gregory Beyer is a writer living in New York. His journalism, essays and reviews of actual books have appeared in The New York Times.