The Sister

The Sister

3.5 154
by Poppy Adams

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"It's ten to two in the afternoon and I've been waiting for my little sister, Vivian since one-thirty. She's finally coming home at sixty-six years old, after an absence of over forty years."
And so begins the tale of two sisters, Ginny and Vivian, reunited after a long estrangement. Ginny's been living in the family's sprawling Victorian home--now creaking and…  See more details below


"It's ten to two in the afternoon and I've been waiting for my little sister, Vivian since one-thirty. She's finally coming home at sixty-six years old, after an absence of over forty years."
And so begins the tale of two sisters, Ginny and Vivian, reunited after a long estrangement. Ginny's been living in the family's sprawling Victorian home--now creaking and leaking, with a ghost of its lavish past lingering--and keeping mostly to herself. But Vivian's arrival shakes up her sister's carefully ordered world, bringing old memories and resentments to the surface. What dark, unspoken secrets are hiding in the family's past?

We soon learn that Ginny and Vivian were born into a long line of distinguished lepidopterists, scientists who study moths and butterflies. Their eccentric father continued the family tradition, and was completely devoted to his work, spending long hours in the laboratory on the upper floor of the house and eventually apprenticing young Ginny as his assistant. As the years passed, his determination to make his mark in this elite field consumed the entire household. Ginny and Vivian's mother, lonely and neglected by her husband, descended into alcoholism and violent mood swings. And before long, rifts opened that may never be repaired.

Now, so many years later, the sisters are drawn back into this stormy world of their childhood. But Ginny is ever observant of the present, wondering why her sister has returned, keeping track of her every move, refusing to accept Vivian's version of their past. As Ginny becomes more and more agitated, she turns to what she can understand and control: her beloved science. And, perhaps more like her father than anyonerealizes, she finds herself tempted by the "most convenient solution."

Told through Ginny's unforgettably eerie voice--both childlike and sinister--this is a haunting novel about passion, trust, betrayal, and a family that destroys itself in the name of love.

Editorial Reviews

Dennis Drabelle
Adams, who has made documentary films for the Discovery Channel, writes sparkling prose and expertly weaves into the action what seems an inexhaustible knowledge of moths…With its stylish prose, taut plotting and dark psychology, The Sister is reminiscent of the best books by Ruth Rendell's alter ego, Barbara Vine. And it comes with a bonus: that storehouse of information about moths. After reading this remarkably assured first novel, you may find yourself looking at those poor cousins to butterflies with a new sense of respect and fear.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

This debut novel from Adams, a former documentary filmmaker, is an interesting and chilling account of two estranged sisters who recount, with varying detail, the memories of their past. Juliet Mills seems the perfect casting choice for narrator, as her rich English accent seems to saturate the words, making every one as important as the last. Mills's characters are honest and resentful, and listeners will be hard pressed not to see them as sisters in the real world. With an air for the theatrical, Mills is simply too strong a performer to ever let her audience sit back and take a break. A Knopf hardcover (Reviews, Mar. 17). (June)

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Library Journal

Ginny's beloved sister, Vivien, whom she hasn't seen for nearly 50 years, is finally coming home, and she's eager to tell Vivi about all the great successes in her life. Never mind that Ginny camps out in a few rooms of her gigantic, crumbling Victorian mansion, obsessively checks the time, and never talks to anyone. We watch Ginny's narrow world slowly unravel over the course of a few days as she remembers what drove Vivi away in the first place. Documentary filmmaker Adams's choice of a first-person narrative here is nothing short of brilliant because it forces the reader to see everything from Ginny's warped perspective (e.g., she freely admits to having a bad case of rheumatoid arthritis but has no idea that she is profoundly mentally ill). And Adams's lavishly gruesome descriptions of Ginny's scientific experiments on moths are enough to turn anyone off lepidopterology entirely! This chilling and disturbing novel is strongly recommended for all but the smallest public library. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/1/08.]
—Laurel Bliss

Kirkus Reviews
The British documentary filmmaker's first novel is an engrossing psychodrama that spans the unsettling week during which estranged siblings reunite in a crumbling English country mansion. The Stones have inhabited Bulburrow Court-a Victorian pile in Dorset, complete with turrets and bell tower-for four generations, but now only elderly Virginia (Ginny), known locally as the Moth Woman, lives there, surrounded by ruin and decay. As a girl, Ginny shared her father Clive's obsession with lepidoptery; she considers herself well known in the field and still engaged in research. Younger, livelier Vivien (Vivi) escaped from the claustrophobic atmosphere, taking a secretarial course in London and a husband, Arthur. Ginny is unworldly, doesn't like strangers and once considered herself the keeper of family secrets: her mother Maud's violent alcoholism and her infertile sister's request for her to bear a child, leading to a surprisingly tender series of sexual encounters between Ginny and Arthur. But is Ginny merely dispassionate and introverted, or more seriously deluded? What does Vivi want, returning to the mansion after nearly 50 years, and is her claim that Clive murdered Maud all those years ago the truth? In this deceptively low-key effort, Adams does a skillful job of teasing the reader's comprehension and sympathies, especially for narrator Ginny, whose inner landscape ranges from the logical and meticulous, to the pathetic, to the deeply disturbed. Skewed perspectives can seem more farcical than chilling, but Adams keeps control in this dark, gothic debut. Agent: Judith Murray/Greene & Heaton. First printing of 100,000
From the Publisher
“Masterly. . . . At once beautiful, informative, and disturbing . . . [with] stylish prose, taut plotting and dark psychology.” —The Washington Post Book World“Deliciously creepy. . . . Reminds us of A.S. Byatt, Kate Atkinson and Stephen King having a house party.” —The Detroit News"Captivating. . . . The odd characters who make up The Sister are extraordinary, each one more unsettling than the next, and their fractured group portrait is deliciously chilling.” —The Miami Herald“An ideal book for discussion groups, because it prompts analysis with a surprise ending that is both stunning and ambiguous." —Providence Journal"The Sister is powered by the same sort of confidently rendered literary suspense that propelled Donna Tartt's The Secret History onto bestseller lists." —The New York Times“Modern gothic.... A story of science and sexual surrogacy, of Alzheimer's and madness: a tangle of violent emotions and roiling passions.”—The Wall Street Journal"Dark and sinister, The Sister draws you in like a moth to a flame...A wholly satisfying character study with heart throbbing twists that will leave you shuddering."—Chris Stuckenschneider, The Missourian"Suspenseful...Adams creates an engrossing atmosphere of gothic mystery."—The New Yorker"The Sister is an ideal book for discussion groups, because it prompts analysis with a surprise ending that is both stunning and ambiguous."—Mandy Twaddell, The Providence Journal"Adams spins a suspenseful, provocative, deliberately ambiguous tale about decay and disrepair-of people and the bonds between them-and about the harm that comes from even well-intended secrecy and silence."—Laura Collins-Hughes, New York Sun"The great beauty of this splendid first novel lies in Ginny's voice, perfectly clear, controlled and calm...A brilliant narrative performance."—Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe“Readers will be haunted by this chilling psychological drama.”—Sue Corbett, People"A genuinely eerie thriller...a chilling contemporary gothic."—Margaret Flanagan, Booklist"A chilling and disturbing novel."—Laurel Bliss, Library Journal, starred review" eerie and accomplished debut."—Publishers Weekly "Engrossing."—Kirkus Reviews "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane comes to Devon, in Adams's gothic tale of madness, sibling rivalry and lepidoptera. Adams is a skillful, entertaining storyteller."—The Guardian"This is a dark book, but an extremely funny one, recalling Mark Haddon and Barbara Trapido by turns. A brilliantly paced debut."—Daily Mail"[A] striking debut novel...[The Sister] is also, in its quietly idiosyncratic way, a novel of ideas. When Ginny reflects on the 'analytic and scientific' cast of mind she inherited from her father, it's difficult not to think of Keats and the 'touch of cold philosopy' that 'unweaves' the poetry of natural phenomena. Adams took a risk in deciding to tell her story in the flat, abstracted voice of someone who has devoted her life to a 'little known insect.' But it is a convincing, true voice and it is to Adams's credit that she sustains it as she does."—Financial Times"Cognitive dissonance is what drives the plot, and that makes this quite a bold first novel."—Daily Telegraph"Damaged families, psychological drama and ghosts from the past abound. Adams succeeds in carefully building up an atmosphere of penumbral suspense, creeping towards a tense climax."—Literary Review"[The Sister] is an intricately crafted story, told with just the right balance of claustrophobia and compassion."—Psychologies Magazine"[A] beautifully staged story...mesmerising and unsettling."—Good Housekeeping Book of the Month"The scene is set for sinister secrets and the revival of murderous family tensions. Adams's debut is an atmospheric addition to the 'mess with your head' school of fiction."—Marie Claire, 4 stars“A gothic mystery that hums along on its slow-burning menace, Poppy Adams's The Sister is a sinful box of bonbons: delicious, but you never know what's inside the next bite.”—Andrew Pyper, author of Lost Girls and The Wildfire Season “A taut, tense tale of the ties that bind-sometimes a little too tightly.”—Karin Slaughter“This lyrical and haunting story of two sisters, their troubling past, and the terrible secrets they each want buried will stay with you long after you close the book. A wonderful book loaded with twists and turns that come straight from the heart.”—Harlan Coben

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


It's ten to two in the afternoon and I've been waiting for my little sister, Vivi, since one-thirty. She's finally coming home, at sixty-seven years old, after an absence of nearly fifty years.

I'm standing at a first-floor window, an arched stone one like you'd find in a church, my face close up to the diamond-shaped leaded panes, keeping lookout. For a moment I focus on the glass and catch the faint, honest reflection of my eye staring back at me, a lock of gray straggly hair in its way. I don't often look at my reflection and to peer at this moment directly into my eye feels more disconcerting than it should, as if I can sense I'm about to be judged.

I pull my wool cardy-an old one of my father's-more tightly around me, tucking the loose end under my arm. It's dropped a degree today, the wind must have changed easterly during the night, and later we'll get fog in the valley. I don't need a barograph or a hygrometer these days, I can sense it-pressure changes, a shift in humidity-but, to tell the truth, I also think about the weather to help me take my mind off things. If I didn't have it to ponder right now, I'd already be getting slightly anxious. She's late.

My smoky breath turns to liquid as it hits the window and, if I rub the mist into heavy droplets, I can make it trickle down the glass. From here I can see half the length of the grassy drive as it winds through the tall skeletal limes on either side, until it disappears right, curving downhill towards East Lodge and the lane and the outside world. If I move my head a fraction to the left the drive elongates and the tops of the limes veer suddenly to the side, distorted by theimperfections of handmade glass. Moving it a little to the right splits the beech hedge in two on either side of a bubble. I know every vagary of every pane. I've lived here all my life and, before me, my mother lived here all her life and, before her, her father and grandfather.

Did I tell you that Vivien said in her letter she was returning for good? For some final peace, she said, because now, she said, we ought to be keeping each other company for the rest of our lives, rather than dying lonely and alone. Well, I'll tell you now, I don't feel lonely and I certainly don't feel as if I'm dying, but even so I'm glad she's coming home. Glad, and a little nervous-a surge of apprehension is swelling in my stomach. I can't help wondering what we'll talk about after all these years and, I suppose, if I'll even recognize her.

I'm not, as a rule, an emotional person. I'm far too-how shall I put it?-levelheaded. I was always the sensible sister and Vivi was the adventurer, but my excitement at her impending arrival even surprises me.

She is late, however. I look at my wristwatch-the digital one on my left wrist. Her letter most specifically read one-thirty and, believe me, it's not my timekeeping that's gone awry. I keep a number of clocks just so I can be sure that, even if one or two let me down, I can always find the correct time. When you live by yourself in a house that you very rarely leave and is even more rarely visited, it's essential that you don't lose track of the time. Every minute lost-if left uncorrected-would soon accumulate to an hour, and then hours, until-as you can imagine-you could easily end up living in a completely erroneous time frame.

Our mother, Maud, and I were always waiting for Vivi: in the hall before we went to church or shouting for her from the landing to hurry up for school. And it's now, as I wait for her again, that I find snippets of our childhood jumping into my head, slices of conversation, things I've not thought about since they happened: our first pair of boots, which Vivi had chosen for us, long black ones that laced to the top; long afternoons in the summer holidays spent damming up the brook to create our own tributaries and islands; sneaking into the loggia at harvest time to drink cider before taking it to the men in the fields; giggling with Maud at Clive's rare excitement when he created a Six-spot Burnet with five spots; our first trip to boarding school, holding each other's clammy hands with shared anticipation, squeezed among the chemical bottles in the back of Clive's car.

It was a childhood in perfect balance, so I'm wondering what it was that came along and changed everything. It wasn't just one thing. There's rarely a sole cause for the separation of lives. It's a sequence of events, an inexorable chain reaction where each small link is fundamental, like a snake of upended dominoes. And I've been thinking that the very first one, the one you push to start it all off, must have been when Vivi slipped off our bell tower and nearly died, fifty-nine years ago.

Excerpted from The Sister by Poppy Adams Copyright © 2008 by Poppy Adams. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Poppy Adams is a biochemist by training and has been a TV documentary film maker for the BBC and the Discovery Channel. This is her first novel. She is already at work on her second. She is 30 years old, and lives with her husband and three children in Notting Hill, London. She gave birth to her third child two weeks before she sold this novel.

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