From the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of How to Be an American Housewife—the poignant story of estranged sisters reunited when a mysterious request from their ailing mother reveals a long-buried family secret.
Rachel and Drew Snow might be sisters, but their lives have followed completely different paths. Rachel is happily married but hasn’t returned to her childhood home since her strict father kicked her out after an act of careless teenage rebellion. Drew, her younger sister, pursued a passion for music but longs for the stability that has always eluded her.
But when their deferential Japanese mother, Hikari, is diagnosed with dementia, the sisters come together to locate a particular book she asks for in a rare moment of lucidity. The book—an epic saga of female samurai in twelfth-century Japan—reveals truths about Drew and Rachel’s relationship that ends up connecting them in ways that turn their differences into assets.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Margaret Dilloway is the author of How to Be an American Housewife and The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns. She lives in California with her husband and their three children.
Read an Excerpt
People in my family are pathologically incapable of asking anyone for help. It’s probably the only tradition we have. Call it pride or stubbornness or fear of rejection, even—each of us is our own island. No matter what anybody’s going through, we pretend everything’s fine, just fine, thanks for asking, and we soldier on.
Take my mother. My mother never asked me or my sister for anything. Not for help with the dishes or cooking. Not for a Christmas or birthday present. Not even for a simple hug.
But I always believed that my mother had deeper needs. Wants she would not ask out loud, even when back she could still communicate. Maybe even needs I was afraid to ask her about, in case I couldn’t help her.
Except for today. Today she broke through her cocoon and, finally, now of all times, asked.
I’ll do anything I can to help her. I wish she’d always known that.
I put my hands on top of each other, palms down, and rock the soles of my feet back and forth into the smooth concrete pool deck. Goggles and earplugs and nose plugs and swimcap and plain black Speedo racerback swimsuit all in place.
You wouldn’t know it, but there was once a day when I could have handily beat every single person standing on the pool deck next to me. That sleek woman to my right. The barrel-chested old man in the unfortunate Speedo to my left. Even the twenty-year-old man already kicking through the water. In fact, there’s still a plaque in the La Jolla High gym that bears my name. Rachel Snow, 100-Meter Freestyle record. Still unbroken, a handwritten note says below it. That was who I used to be. Unbroken.
The noon sun covers me in a prickly blanket. It’s October and still oven-warm here in San Diego. Only a few people are in the public pool in the middle of weekday, parents splashing in the shallow end with their toddlers. Later, it’ll be filled with water polo teams and after-school swim clubs.
Usually swimming clears my head, but not today. My brain turns over and over what happened this morning, when I visited my mother in the nursing home. I shake my shoulders loose, take a deep breath in. One, two, three. I release it, take another, stare at the shimmering blue-white water. Yes, there it is. That particular ache I get whenever I think about Mom.
We had a good visit today. Not because my mother knew who I was, but because we had a nice time together. Being quiet. Looking at foam on the waves and cloud formations in the sky. This was a beautiful facility, situated as it is right by the Pacific, and its expense matches its views—but my father can afford it without a single sacrifice.
My mother and I ate ginger and lemon crème cookies, dipping them into our decaf black tea. She ate a whole sleeve. Probably not on her approved diet list, but really, if I were in my mom’s situation, I’d be eating a daily pound of See’s. You might as well enjoy the time you have left.
The truth is, she’s never going to get better.
After we finished our snack, Mom continued staring out the window. I sat in another slipcovered armchair next to hers.
Mom’s coarse black hair, white at the roots, was standing up, and I reached over to smooth it down. “Hikari Sato.” My voice was so loud I hurt my own ears. Most of the time, people ask me to repeat myself. Mom didn’t turn at the sound of her name. I wondered what she was thinking about. If she remembered her husband, my father.
I haven’t seen or talked to him since I was sixteen. I’d become a problem child, breaking the rules, acting the wrong way, and my father had abruptly told me to get out, forbade my mother from seeing me. I’ve heard, since then, of other parents doing the same for various reasons—often because they disapprove of their child’s partner or lifestyle or sexual orientation. Some people have an unshakeable internal morality. As far as he’s concerned, he’s got only has one daughter now, Drew. I’m not sure I’ll ever talk to him again. If you can say anything about Killian Snow, it’s that he will never give up.
“Hey.” Mom took my hand in her paper-dry one. “Look out there.” She pointed to the parking lot below, where a man shimmied out of his wetsuit, his longboard leaning against the open trunk of his sedan, having finished some morning surfing. His broad shoulders glistened with salt water. “Check out that surfer. He’s changing. I can see everything. Back and front.” She giggled, a throaty, mischievous sound, then leaned over and rapped on the window. “Woo!” she shouted like a teenager, and he looked up, searching for the source. “That cold water didn’t hurt him any.”
“Mom!” I giggled too, my laugh echoing hers perfectly. A flush rose up my neck. The man waved, believing it was me yelling, not the tiny innocent-looking Japanese woman sitting next to me. Oh well. I leaned back out of sight and checked the time. “I have to go, okay?” I stand, kiss the top of her head. “I’ll see you next week.”
“Wait.” Mom grabbed my upper arm, hyper-alert. Wrinkles suddenly cracked across her face like riverbeds on a relief map, cutting across the high mountains of her cheekbones.“Wait, wait.” She yanked with sudden Hulk-like strength on my arm, and I sat right back down.
Mom wanted something.
I gently pried her hand off my arm, no small feat. “What is it, Mom? What do you need?” I thought perhaps she’d ask me for a box of her favorite cookies, Mallomars, or maybe even tell me to bring my twenty-year-old daughter Quincy and my fourteen- year-old son Chase around next time.
Her mouth opened, forming words I couldn’t catch, her voice raspy and low. Like she couldn’t quite expel the syllables hard enough.
“Say it again.” I leaned closer, trying to make out her meaning.
Mom cupped my chin with her hand. “Rachel.” Her eyes met mine, purposefully now, not with the usual randomness, as if my eyes were another piece of furniture in the room. “Rachel, Rachel.”
Mom was back. If only for a moment.
“Mom?” I leaned forward, my mouth going dry. “What is it you need? Tell me. I’ll help you.” Tell me. Make up for all the other times you didn’t ask. Or when I couldn’t help.
Mom took a gigantic gulp of air, as if she’d been diving hundreds of feet under water. “Hon desu, hon desu,” she whispered in Japanese.
I didn’t speak the language.“Hon?” I whispered back, though I wasn’t sure why we were whispering. We were all alone in the calm, white room. The plastic vertical blinds rattled in the breeze. Mom blinked and screwed up her face like she’s tasted something sour. “Sewing room,” she said finally, with tremendous effort, in English. “Drew knows. Drew will help.”
My little sister. Not that she’s been little for a long time. Younger, I corrected myself. I will always be younger than you, Drew liked to say. “What does hon mean, Mom?”
Mom took her hand out of mine and stared back out the window, at the ocean waves pounding. Another car pulled into the surfer’s vacated spot. I bent into her face, searched her gaze for a sign she knew me. But it was like looking at the blank dark screen of a laptop. Only my own reflection.
Now I hesitate on the pool deck, straighten, crack my shoulder and stretch it out, considering my mother’s request. Small pins of pain shoot up across my back, to my spine. Hon. I had looked up the word. Hon means book.
My mother wants me to get a book.
From her sewing room? Or what used to be her sewing room? And Drew, of all people, knows? As far as I know, my sister’s never set foot in that room. That was Mom’s sacred space. I’m going to have to call my little sister. Which means bumping up our phone calls from birthday-and-holiday-only, to an out-of-the-ordinary one.
I imagine Drew’s voice, smooth as melted sugar, coating all over her real emotions. It used to be so easy, second nature, to tell what my sister was thinking. Now there’s a thick invisible wall between us, and it’s like we’re little girls again, our beds on each side of the wall, tapping and hoping the other will hear, after the other one’s already deep asleep.
Drew coming home from the hospital is one of my very first memories. I was four when Drew was born. I wasn’t too excited about having a baby in the house. I didn’t even like baby dolls.
Mom told me to sit quietly on the couch. She put Drew in my lap. “Hold her while I get her bottle ready,” she instructed me. “Do not move.” Drew lay perfectly still, wrapped up like a sausage in her blanket. I thought Mom had tricked me, brought me a heavy doll. I stared at her. She slept, immobile. Boring. She smelled like sour milk. Her head was pointy, her face wrinkled and homely.
I poked her in the cheek with my finger, dimpling the soft skin like dough. I poked her again, a little harder. “Wake up.”
Drew opened her eyes and stared right at me. Her eyes were the deepest gray-brown then, like polished obsidian mixed with dark chocolate. Her stubborn little arm busted free and her tiny hand clutched my finger.
My heart stuttered. “Hello,” I whispered, and I swore to God she smiled, though everyone said newborns couldn’t. I kissed the spots where I’d poked her. That night, I slept in her room, on the floor next to her crib, until Mom caught me and made me go back to my own bed.
It was my sister who taught me how to love.
“Feel like a race, Rachel?” the sleek woman to my right says. Shelley, another mother who swims laps here regularly. She pulls her dark goggles down over her tanned face and white swim cap and stretches her wide, muscular shoulders. “It’ll be good for both of us.”
My own shoulder gives a twinge of anticipatory pain. “That’s okay. You go on with your bad self.”
She sticks out her lips. “You’re no fun.”
“I know, I know.” I wave her off and she dives in. Wet blanket. Hey, somebody’s got to be the sensible one, even if it’s not very fun sometimes. I bend over again, grabbing for the water, diving in without a splash. Perfect, even when nobody cares.
Water has its own time. Inside, under the water, you can’t hear anything but muffled sounds from the people on shore. Bubbles and sloshing from whoever or whatever’s in there with you. Nothing to look at but the black lines painted on the bottom of the pool.
Usually I don’t think of anything at all while I swim, which is why I love it so much. Even with my bum shoulder, which still flares up like a barometer on thunderous days.
But today. Today I do my usual crawl, two strokes and then a breath, two strokes and then a breath, my big feet like turtle fins propelling me along. I look down at the white lines and instead I see the familiar faces of my mother, my sister, and my daughter. The three women closest to me.
It strikes me that even though I could sketch all these faces in my sleep—even though one gave birth to me, one inhabited the same womb I did, and I literally grew the other one inside of me—all of them are really strangers now. Unknown to me, really. And I’m unknown to them. Because isn’t that what happens, when we grow up? We leave each other.
I close my eyes and swim faster.
Drew decides to drown this afternoon’s humiliation in a diet Pepsi. What she really needs is a kick-in-the-sternum Jack and Coke. Jack, like the musician she met today. She almost giggles at the reference. “I’m losing it,” she whispers to the photo of the English sheepdog drooling over a Milkbone.
She opens the mini fridge under the desk, hoping that she missed a little whiskey or vodka bottle amid the old bagged salads and half-eaten Dannons. It’s turned up too high, filming ice over everything. She pushes a spot clean on the desk, amid papers and tufts of dog hair in blacks and tans and whites. She cracks the can open slowly, and pours it into a child’s plastic take-out cup, pleased to see that the soda comes out the consistency of a Slurpee. Perfect. This, at least, is the bright spot in her day. She sits back in the ergonomic chair her employer Liza bought. An awfully expensive chair, considering this office is essentially a storage closet.
This is Dogwart’s Dog Grooming, located in a little strip mall off of Beverly Boulevard. Not the Beverly Hills part of Beverly Boulevard, but futher east, next to an all-night burrito joint and a legalized marijuana shop, the parking lot always crowded with red-eyed, sleepy people. The interior looks like a preschooler’s approximation of an English castle, with fake stone walls and a built-in turret on which a fake sleeping dog sleeps, his nylon furred black and white sides moving up and down eternally. Dogwart’s is closed today, because Drew had another job and her boss Liza is off on what she called a “cleansing cruise” for the next three weeks, where she’ll get her aura purified and lots of hot stone massages, or something of that nature.
Drew’s not a hundred percent sure. She only knows that Liza, a never-married woman in her late fifties, has called Drew three times during her vacation and requested wire transfers of thousands of dollars. It’s making Drew nervous, this hemorrhaging when there’s so little coming in; but tomorrow she’s got two groomings, an overgrown Labradoodle and a Newfoundland, so that will eat up at least half the day. The viola gig came at just the right time.
The viola gig. Drew takes a big pull of the soda, getting a chunk of ice. Today was the final recording session of Drew’s backup strings for an alternative rock band, Time in Purgatory, working along with ten other classically-trained instrumentalists.
Everyone else had already left the studio, except for Drew and the lead singer. Drew fiddled with the locks on her viola case, feeling, she thought, a warmth between them.
This band’s about to take off, U2-style. Radio stations are already playing tracks off the second album, and everybody’s talking about the release of this one. She’s still humming the song they recorded today. It’ll be one of those songs they play ten times a day until you’re properly sick of it, like it’s some radio conspiracy to make people hate songs they once loved. But right now, it’s still new.
A musicians’ agency books Drew for these gigs. She’s played viola for chocolate and lotion commercials, for Italian restaurant radio ads (she’s always playing that cheesily romantic Bella Notte song from Lady and the Tramp), for educational baby DVDs (Drew still can’t believe anybody lets babies watch television—her sister Rachel would have rather poked her own eyes out than let her precious babies be stunted by television. Okay, exaggeration. But not by much).
These gigs aren’t bad work by any means. Not that steady, but Drew’s got it better than most musicians. The occasional gig supplements her dog grooming job. And who knows—one could turn into something one day.
Maybe even a relationship.
Drew sinks down into her comfortable chair and takes a pull so strong on her soda that she gets brain freeze. Relationship. Yeah, right. She’d rather forget.
How Drew had smiled at the lead singer, Jack, as he packed up reams of sheet music into an accordion folder, carefully sorting by instrumental part. It reminded her, with a twinge in her stomach (regret? Annoyance? She couldn’t identify the feeling; they felt interchangeable sometimes, in her untrustworthy gut) of the old days, when Drew used to arrange music for the rock band she was in, Out Stealing Horses.
Drew quit grad school at twenty-five to be in that band, quit for her boyfriend, Jonah, because she didn’t want him traveling, having fun, without her. They didn’t want a viola player, so she banged the tambourine, standing in the background, stage left of the drummer, hundreds of cables swirled around her ankles like chains. Her most important role was the music arrangement, as Drew the only one with a music degree and the only one who could do notation.
For seven years, off and on, with Drew always working some job that could easily be left if need be, they’d traveled from one club to another, to every dive on the West Coast until they were signed by a minor label; then to every county fair and second-rate musical festival in the country. The crowds grew at each venue. Drew wrote some music, hoped she’d prove her worth and get a larger role. Once she wrote an entire song, “Out of Bounds,” with a beautiful viola part that backed up and supported the other instruments, like the frame of a house. That’s not the kind of music we play, Yoko, the bassist said. The guitar’s the frame, not you. Jonah told her it wasn’t quite right for them. She told herself it didn’t matter, that she was only sticking around because of Jonah, The One. She wouldn’t have put up with that for anyone else.
That’s what you get for putting all your eggs in one basket. Her literal ovarian eggs—nearly all of them wasted on Jonah. They’d broken up almost two years ago now.
Drew was lucky to be doing anything even semi-professional with music. Most of the other music majors in her year went into other fields after graduation, their student loans and then mortgages and weddings and babies absorbing their freshly hatched ambitions. Drew would see her old friends and they’d tell her You’re so lucky to be doing what you love, I just became a corporate cubicle slave. And Drew would feel a glimmer of gratitude and pride.
Finally, Jonah’s band signed with a big label and embarked on a European tour, and Drew unceremoniously released from both the band and the relationship. “It wouldn’t have worked out long term anyway,” Drew told Jonah, wanting to be the one to say it first. Jonah, staring at Drew with his large Siamese cat eyes, had at least been kind enough to give her that courtesy. “If we had kids, both of us can’t be traveling the world, and I hate being left behind.” This was absolutely true. At least this all had ended before Drew hit her mid-thirties, and really lost all of the best years of her life.
And so Drew returned to Los Angeles, to her viola and her side jobs. Then at some point, her side job became the viola instead, and the side job became the main job, the transition taking place so fluidly that Drew didn’t notice it had happened until Rachel had asked her about it last Christmas.
“Are you spending most of your time at the grooming salon these days?” Rachel asked, encased in the bubble of her perfect family. “Not too many music jobs in this economy, I suppose.” Rachel couldn’t see how much this question hurt Drew. Or possibly she did. Drew could no longer tell.
Drew put her viola case on the floor with a bang. Snap out of it, she told herself. Here she sat in this studio, wasting her chance with Jack as she questioned every life choice she’d made since high school graduation.
Jack turned to her. “How do you think the final version sounds?”
Drew’s eyes snapped up to meet his green ones. She was unable to think of anything to say except, Quit talking and kiss me. “Um, good,” she said instead, and wished she hadn’t. She hated it when someone told her she was “really good,” after a performance. Good could mean anything—Okay, Great, I was asleep. Good meant you didn’t care. “Fantastic. It’s going to be a hit.”
He nodded and looked back down at the papers with a pleased smile. She wasn’t attracted to Jack because he was about to hit it big. Drew liked him because of his clear, wavering tenor; because he closed his eyes when he sang; because he had tousled blond hair like a Lab puppy’s; because the muscles of his tanned skin were visible under his white T-shirt. And when he smiled at her (often and more than he smiled at anyone else. Drew counted), pleasant shivers, as if she’d just tasted an ice cream cone, traveled all over her body. “More robust,” he said to Drew after the first rehearsal this morning.
“Robust like Arabica beans?” She nodded toward his coffee.
“Robust as those coffee beans they have to dig out of squirrel poop.” Everyone laughed.
All day they’d been flirting, bantering, and now Drew thought this was her big chance. She stared at him from under her thick ebony lashes. In certain lights, her eyes were as amber as petrified pieces of wood, the effect magnified (she hoped) by the thick black eyeliner that had been Drew’s signature look since the age of fourteen. Without the eyeliner, Drew thought her half-Asian eyes disappeared into her face.
She glanced at her phone. It was nearly three, and the traffic on the 405 was only going to get worse. If she wanted to get home, she’d have to leave immediately or be gridlocked for two hours. That was what her love life came down to: traffic-based decisions. Come on, she willed. We haven’t got all day. She smoothed down her denim mini and crossed her long legs in a casual attempt to get him to look at her.
“Hey,” she said huskily to Jack, who finally finished organizing his papers. “Feel like getting a drink?”
Jack blinked, blatant surprise and mild dismay on his suddenly awfully young-looking face, though he was her exact age. A mottled flush settled over Drew’s fair skin. Well, shit. She’d read that wrong? Really?
She’d been doing a lot of that lately. Reading things wrong.
To cover herself, she rolled her shoulders. “Alcohol. Relaxes the muscles. You know.” She pointed vaguely at her chin, which she knew bore the mark of her chin rest. “My neck. It’s super sore.”
“Ah, yeah.” Jack snapped the folder closed. “We’re meeting at the Black Crow around the corner. If you want to join us.” He flashed her a quick, friendly smile. But that was all it was. Friendly.
The studio door opened and a young woman walked in. At least ten years younger than Drew, who was thirty-four and therefore decrepit by Los Angeles standards. She smiled at Drew, her big teeth so young they still had those serrated edges. “Hey, Jacob. Ready to load the van?” She had long brown hair, like Drew, and high cheekbones and full lips. All not unlike Drew. Even her frame, a tallish five-seven and bones thin enough to wrap a hand around and overlap a finger, was about the same size as Drew. But this girl had that youthful sleekness Drew was starting to lose, as if Drew’s skin had already begun pulling away from her bones. It didn’t seem fair, to deteriorate physically so fast in her mid-thirties, before she even had the chance to have a baby. Drew swallowed, aware suddenly of the gap between her and this woman, the unspoken biological need that made men desire younger and younger women, no matter how close to her age the men were.
When she first moved to LA for college, Drew had been horrified by all the plasticky looking people. Women with enlarged lips looking for all the world like wax candy, with their bolted on breasts and shiny waxen skin. The weirdest thing, she thought, was that nobody acted like this was anything out of the ordinary, these aliens walking amongst them. Now she seriously considered joining them.
Back then, Drew felt so superior about her own skin situation. “Half-Asian skin, baby,” she told people, and held her hand up for a high-five. “Doesn’t get wrinkly until you’re at least sixty.” The indestructible twenties, when you’re superior to everyone and everything. Back then, she would have been this girl, smiling with perfect confidence at this elderly interloper. Nobody could take a man from Drew. How bitchily powerful that had felt. She hadn’t felt like a bitch at the time, of course, but now she sees that she probably was.
Jack lifted his beautiful face for a kiss from the other beautiful face. “Priscilla, Drew.”
“Hello,” Priscilla chirped, picking up the accordion folder. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” Drew echoed numbly.
“See you at the bar, maybe.” Jack nodded at her and exited the glass-walled studio, Priscilla close behind.
Drew dropped her head, staring at the pocked black plastic of her viola case. There was no sound in here except for the air faintly whistling through her nose, a by-product of seasonal allergies. Suddenly she saw herself how Jack must see her. A semi-employed cougar, practically Basic Instinct-ing herself at him. Pitiable. She caught sight of herself in the glass between the sound booth and the studio. Her eyeliner’s streaked into the fine lines beneath her eyes. Well, great. The cherry on it all.
In the pet grooming office, Drew shudders at the memory and pretends that this soda is making everything all better, forcing herself to drink it all fast so she gets a throbbing headache. “That hit the spot,” she says to a picture of a hairy mutt, a grooming guide stuck up on the wall, arrows pointing at all the places that needed trimming with various shear sizes.
She fires up the laptop so she can wire Liza another two grand, her stomach tensing at the dwindling balance. Honestly, she isn’t sure how Liza stays in business. Liza comes from a rich family, the offspring of someone who’d invested early in Wendy’s, so this business is mostly a way for Liza to stay busy. A vanity operation. But lately money hasn’t been being deposited, and Drew doesn’t know where it’s gone, or if it’s gone for good.
Drew waits for the laptop to hum to life and regards the empty plastic cup sitting in front of her, where Mickey and Minnie Mouse hold hands and proclaim in Gothic script, The Happiest Place on Earth. She doesn’t know precisely when her life turned into this big sticky oatmeal cookie of a mess. One, two wrong turns—detours, really— and she’d veered completely off the path to wherever she was headed. But Drew kept thinking if she only turned around, turned right, she could find her way back.
If she had a destination. Something’s got to change.
She takes a small black spiral bound notebook out of her bag. She’s carried one around since she was a kid, to write down ideas for song lyrics and music notes. Drew used to set it on the toilet tank outside the shower because that’s where she thought of her best ideas, and the notebook would get wet and curled, the ink running. When she was in the band, she’d fill up one every two weeks.
This one still looked factory-new. She opens it to the second page, the first page having been filled with a grocery list, and stares at the dogs on the wall and tries to will a new song to come to her.
All she hears is the refrigerator whirring.
Her phone buzzes again and she lifts it to her ear. “I’ve almost got it done, Liza, but you need to deposit more money by the 15th for the rent.” It’s October 2, she notes.
“Hey.” A younger voice, not Liza’s raspy twang. As familiar to Drew as her own. Her big sister. Rachel clears her throat.
“Rachel,” Drew says. She wasn’t expecting her sister to call. Fear laces up her insides. “What happened? Mom? One of the kids?”
Drew exhales. She talks to her sister on the phone a grand total of maybe five times a year, if they’re lucky, and lately they hadn’t been. Their conversations had grown shorter and shorter over the years, until it was simply an exchange like, “Happy birthday! The kids want to talk to Aunt Drew.” On major holidays, Drew stops by to see the children, but she’s never felt quite comfortable staying for too long. Like she’s intruding on her sister’s impenetrable family unit.
That’s just how it was between them. Rachel getting kicked out had turned them into virtual strangers.
When Rachel and Drew were young, they were inseparable. Or, at least Drew had felt that way, tagging along after her older sister wherever she went, until Rachel hit her mid-teens and became the problem child, leaving Drew behind as the everlasting gobstopper in her family. Drew, the musical talent. How her parents had pinned their hopes on her.
Then their roles had reversed. All of Drew’s potential had evaporated when she picked up the tambourine for the band. It is Rachel now who has it all. Rachel who turned her sinking ship of a life around and made it into something beautiful, with her great kids and truly great husband. Pillar of the community, that Rachel.
Drew has the feeling Rachel gave up on her years ago. Wrote her off as Eccentric Sister, she who will never get her life together. Drew can actually feel Rachel rolling her eyes through the phone every time they speak. It’s that visceral. The Rachel Glare. Her sister’s never been good at hiding feelings. Drew’s teeth grind automatically, thinking of Rachel’s judgment. She’s got bigger problems. Her phone beeps again. A Liza- call awaits. “Can I call you back in like two minutes?”
“No.” Rachel sounds determined. “This is really important. It is about Mom, though.”
The office phone rings now, and an email pops up in front of Drew. WHERE ARE YOU CALL ME, Liza has written. Drew groans inwardly, and, fed up with Liza and her constant demands, silences the office phone and swivels away from the computer. “What can I help you with?” She sounds formal yet cheerful, how she imagines a Midwestern front desk clerk to be. Maybe that’s where she’ll move. Where people aren’t so concerned with appearances, and she can be a real person.
"I went to visit Mom today,” Rachel says.
Drew sits up straight, her spine popping. “How is she?”
Rachel takes a big breath, and Drew knows she’s trying not to cry. “She was Mom again for a minute, and she told me to get something from her house.”
She pictures her mother’s face, Mom again, as Rachel says, Mom with recognition in her eyes, instead of the blank Mom they know now, and bites her lip hard. These moments are getting rarer. “Did she tell you about a secret treasure chest buried in the backyard?” Drew says, both to keep the tone light and to tamp down the stinging in her own eyes.
Rachel either doesn’t get or ignores this bit of humor. “No. It’s some kind of book. In the sewing room,” Rachel continues. She hesitates. “I don’t know what kind of book it is. She said you would know. Do you remember her showing you a book in there?”
Drew shuts her eyes, pictures her parents’ house, which she’d left as soon as humanly possible, at the age of seventeen and a half, escaping to USC. The sewing room is downstairs. Drew rarely ventured in there. Sometimes, when nobody else was home, Drew would go in and look around, just because she was bored and lonely and nosy. But all she can remember are fabrics and a big sewing machine. A material-cutting table. “I can’t think of her showing me any book. I’m sorry. Did she say why she wants it?”
“No. But I just know it’s important, Drew. You should have seen the way she grabbed me. Her expression. It was like she was starving and asking for food.” Rachels’ voice is flat, which means she’s afraid. There’s no reason to be afraid about a book, Drew thinks. They’ll go find it. No big deal. Rachel’s always overreacted. Always has. Once, a huge gray moth flew into the family room while they were watching TV. Rachel grabbed Drew and threw her off the couch, out of the moth’s path. “I thought it was a monster,” Rachel had said later. “I was protecting you.” Drew had a bruised thigh for two weeks from that protection.
Drew pictures all the books she’s ever seen Mom handle. An Italian cookbook. Curious George. Amish Country Quilting. Her mind goes blank. Their mother was never known as a big reader. Besides, Drew was never close to her, the way Rachel had been. “Why don’t you just go over to Dad’s and look?”
“Yeah.” Rachel gives a little bark of a laugh. “I should. I will. I was just wondering if you remembered, so I’d know what I was looking for.”
Oh. Yeah. Getting a book out of their father’s house should not be a two-person operation, but Drew had forgotten, for a second, that their father had disowned her sister. Does she want Drew to come down and help? Then she should ask, Drew thinks stubbornly. Is she supposed to be a mind-reader?
Yet something in Rachel’s voice gives her pause. Rachel hates, more than anything, to admit weakness. She’s the type of person who’d bleed all over the place instead of just accepting a damn Band-Aid from you. Does she want help, but is afraid to ask? Afraid Drew will blow her off?
Drew’s phone buzzes again. Won’t Liza leave her alone for just a minute? Drew hits SEND on the bank transfer. The page refreshes itself, and her pulse skitters. The balance is down. A lot down.
DREW CALL ME IMMEDIATELY, Liza’s text reads.
She clicks the screen dark on her phone, turning her full attention to her big sister. Rachel’s never asked for help with Mom. Not once. You’re too far away. I can take care of her. Tom and the kids will help, Rachel always said, rebuffing Drew’s offers. No doubt Rachel thinks this makes it easier for Drew, but instead it makes her feel unwanted.
Drew comes down to visit sometimes, on the weekends, where she sits with her mother, trying and failing to think of anything to say. She usually reads a book aloud, out of the library cart, to fill the time. Then she heads back to L.A. before traffic gets too bad, thinking, sometimes, of calling her sister—but then thinking there’s really no point, because Rachel will just say, Oh, we’re really busy today, not going to be home until bedtime. Which was probably, in fact, a hundred percent true. Anyway, Drew had stopped trying.
Drew clears her throat, imagining going down to help for a couple of days. Suddenly, walking away from this store, from this non-life, seems like a pretty damn good option. She needs to recalibrate.
She hears her sister breathing on the other end of the phone. How Drew always tried to crawl into bed with Rachel, to be lulled to sleep by that sound. Drew has an urge to put her arms around her sister, to tell her both of them will be okay. She thinks of her niece and nephew—Chase a teenager, Quincy in college—and it feels like someone pitched a ball into her stomach. They’re so old now, and Drew has mostly missed it all. If she doesn’t know them well, who will come visit Drew when she’s in Mom’s situation? She wants to see them, too.
Does Rachel want her help? Will she be offended if Drew offers? Drew pauses. “I could come down there and help you find the book tomorrow. If you want, that is. It’s not a problem.” Please want, she prays.
There is a silence for a moment. “Yes, I would appreciate that, thank you,” Rachel says softly, and that’s all that Drew needs to hear. She closes the laptop with a snap.
What People are Saying About This
“A skillfully woven tale where the lore of a twelfth-century female samurai helps two present-day sisters release the past and heal their fractured lives. Vivid, detailed, and historically fascinating.”
—Beth Hoffman, New York Times bestselling author of Looking for Me
"I deeply admire Margaret Dilloway’s deftness in braiding together past and present, but what I love best about this book is that every relationship rings true, particularly the complicated bonds of sisterhood. As Drew and Rachel struggle toward each other, butting heads, wrestling with old jealousies, discovering deep reservoirs of love, I kept thinking: 'Yes! That’s it. That’s exactly how it is.'"—Marisa de los Santos, New York Times bestselling author of Love Walked In and Belong to Me
"Dilloway's historical tale of legendary love and loss illuminates a modern-day struggle between sisters both the intense conflict and devotion. If you don't have a sister, you'll wish you had one. If you do, you'll want to go find her and hold her tight."—
Julie Kibler, author of Calling Me Home
Praise for Margaret Dilloway
“This radiant debut pays moving tribute to the power of forgiveness.”
“Enchanting... Dilloway splits her narrative gracefully between mother and daughter making a beautifully realized whole.”
— Publishers Weekly
“Heartfelt…Lovely.” — USA Today
“A nuanced debut.” — Redbook
“A tender and captivating novel of family secrets and redemption, and a compelling look at the complex love languages spoken within three generations of a family.”
—Jamie Ford, author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Reading Group Guide
SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW
1. In Sisters of Heart and Snow, author Margaret Dilloway juxtaposes Tomoe Gozen’s story with that of Rachel and Drew Snow. What comparisons can you draw between them? Discuss the impact of Rachel and Drew reading Tomoe’s story during this time in their lives.
2. Rachel and Drew’s mother, Hikari Sato Snow, and Lucy, Killian Snow’s new bride, were both mail-order brides. Both wanted to come to the US and were okay living under Killian’s “rule” to do so. Were you surprised by how comfortable they were with that type of life? Did they make the right decision to come?
3. Hikari’s story is mostly told through Rachel’s and Drew’s recollections of interactions with her. It’s clear that she lived, at times, a very difficult life. Do you sympathize with Hikari? Did your opinion of her change over the course of Sisters of Heart and Snow?
4. At its essence, this is a book about sisters. Rachel and Drew are foils of each other. Their relationship changes drastically over the few months in which Sisters of Heart and Snow takes place. What stimulates this change? Did you relate more to one sister or the other?
5. Hikari’s life was vastly different from Rachel’s and Drew’s. Are some of these differences common to all mother-daughter relationships? And how do these differences impact the relationship Hikari has with her daughters, as compared to other mother-daughter relationships you are familiar with?
6. Tomoe’s story is an epic saga, a coming-of-age story of a female samurai warrior. While Tomoe struggles throughout the story, she eventually finds happiness. Was she wise to leave the battle at the end? What impacted her to leave—was it the love she learned from Yamabuki? Is it okay to not always be strong?
7. Throughout the tale, Tomoe and Yamabuki taught each other many lessons. What lessons did Rachel and Drew teach each other?
8. Rachel and Drew’s relationship with their father, Killian, was complicated from childhood. Rachel spends much of the novel corresponding with her father only through their lawyers. In the end, Killian agrees to talk with Rachel, rather than wait until the trial. What causes him to agree to this? What is the impact of this meeting on Rachel?
9. Many different types of relationships are explored throughout Sisters of Heart and Snow. Rachel’s relationship with Hikari was never smooth, but in the end, Rachel cares for her ailing mother. Rachel has a very different relationship with her own daughter, Quincy. How has Rachel’s relationship with her mother impacted her relationship with her daughter? Has Rachel parented differently as a result of the way she was raised?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is an absolutely beautifully written book. Sometimes the words just took my breath away. The Snow sisters, Rachel and Drew, are very different from each other and have fought a lot throughout their lives. But now they are drawn together as their mother, Haruki, falls deeper and deeper into the depths of dementia. The sisters are united in ensuring their mother continues to get the best care possible, while their father Killian is only concerned about the expense. During one of Rachel’s visit with her mother, Hakuri asks for a book that is in her sewing room. Then she sinks back into her dementia. Rachel and Drew find the book; however, it is written in Japanese. Thus they find a translator who feeds them portions of the book as he completes the translation. The story in the book is from 12th-century Japan, and tells of two “sisters of the heart”. Tomoe, a female warrior, loves Yoshinaka but can bear him no children. Thus, he brings a bride, Yamabuki, to his home. At first Tomoe sees Yamabuki as a threat but eventually she learns to love her as a sister. Tomoe is torn between always being at the side of her samurai lover Yoshinaka or staying to protect delicate Yamabuki. However, the women find strength from each other to deal with formerly foreign ways of life. “Sisters of the Heart and Snow” alternates between the stories of the Snow sisters and the story they read of the “sisters of the heart”. Both Rachel and Drew draw strength from the story of Tomoe and all her trials and tribulations. They even learn about sisterly love from the story of real-life female samurai Tomoe Gozen. Rachel and Drew use the book to better understand their relationship with their mother and with each other.
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings Two stories that blend together, sort of, in the end. One storyline is an ancient story or folklore from Japan about a unique female samurai warrior who has two brothers that she has to keep up with. The other storyline centers around two sisters who had quite the dramatic upbringing and reacted in very different ways and now have to come back together to deal with an ailing mother and a difficult father. I love a good family drama. I live for a good family drama. I haven't read one that focuses on a Japanese family and as most folks have heard rumors about how their culture is tough on their children and set high expectations, so I was excited to read this one and enjoyed mixing the family drama with a folklore and trying to figure out how and when they would cross.