The Night Sister

The Night Sister

by Jennifer McMahon


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From the New York Times bestselling author Jennifer McMahon (The Winter People) comes an atmospheric, gripping, and suspenseful tale that probes the bond between sisters and the peril of keeping secrets.

The Tower Motel was once a thriving attraction of rural Vermont. Today it lies in disrepair, alive only in the memories of the three women—Amy, Piper, and Piper’s kid sister, Margot—who played there as children. They loved exploring the abandoned rooms … until the day their innocent games uncovered something dark and twisted that ruined their friendship forever.

Now, Amy stands accused of committing a horrific crime, and the only hint to her motives is a hasty message that forces Piper and Margot to revisit the motel’s past, and the fate of two sisters who lived there in its heyday.  Sylvie Slater had dreams of running off to Hollywood and becoming Alfred Hitchcock’s leading lady, while her little sister, Rose, was content with their simple life. Each believed the other to be something truly monstrous, but only one knows the secret that will haunt the generations to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804169974
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/08/2016
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 60,113
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

JENNIFER McMAHON is the author of six novels, including the New York Times best-sellers Promise Not to Tell and The Winter People. She graduated from Goddard College and studied poetry in the MFA Writing Program at Vermont College.

Read an Excerpt

Amy’s heart hammers, and her skin is slick with sweat.

Focus, she tells herself. 

Don’t think about the thing in the tower. 

Amy knows that if she thinks too hard about it, she won’t be able to do what needs to be done. 

She looks down at the photo, the old black-and-white print she’s kept for almost thirty years, hidden away in the drawer of her bedside table.  It’s been handled so much that it’s cracked and faded, one of the corners torn.   
In it, her mother, Rose, and her Aunt Sylvie are young girls, wearing crisp summer dresses as they stand in front of a sign that says World Famous London Chicken Circus.  Each girl clutches a worried-looking hen, but that’s where the similarities end. Amy’s mother is wearing a scowl beneath tired eyes, her hair dark and unkempt, while Sylvie is radiant, the one who was going to grow up and go to Hollywood. Her blond hair is movie-star perfect, her eyes shining.

Someone had scrawled a date on the back: June, 1955. If only Amy could travel back in time, talk to those two girls, warn them what was coming.  Warn them that one day, it would all lead to this moment: Amy alone and out of options, on the verge of doing something terrible.

She bites her lip and wonders what people will say about her once she’s gone.  

That she was broken inside, a woman with a screw loose (Aren’t all women like that, really?  Little time bombs waiting? Especially women like her—surviving on monthly boxes from the food pantry, dressing her children in ragged, second-hand clothes that never quite fit.) 

What went wrong? they will whisper to each other while fondling artichokes and avocados in the produce aisle of the grocery store.       

What kind of monster was she? they might ask after a few glasses of wine as they sit in tidy living rooms, gathered for book club.  

But these people know nothing of true monsters.  They will never have to make the choices Amy has made.

The fluorescent lights in the kitchen buzz and flicker.  Amy takes a deep breath, looks out the kitchen window. Beyond the gravel driveway, past the two ruined motel buildings with their sagging, swaybacked roofs, the tower leans precariously.  Made of cement and stone, it was built by her grandfather all those years ago as a gift for her grandmother Charlotte.  Her own Tower of London.

Amy thinks, as she often does, of that long ago summer when she was twelve.  Of Piper and Margot and the day they found the suitcase; of how after that, nothing was ever the same. 

Where was Piper now?  Out in California somewhere, surrounded by palm trees and glamorous people, living a life Amy couldn’t even imagine.  Amy suddenly longs to talk to her, to confide in her and ask for forgiveness, to say, “Don’t you see this is what I have to do?”

She thinks that Piper and Margot might understand if she could tell them the whole story, starting with the suitcase and working forward.

But mostly, what she wishes, is that she could find a way to warn them. 

She glances at the old photo in her hand, takes a black marker from a kitchen drawer, and hastily writes a message along the bottom, over the chickens and patterned summer dresses. Then she tucks the photograph into her back pocket and goes to the window.

The clock on the stove says 12:15 am.  

Down at the tower, a shadow lurches from the open doorway. 

She’s out of time. 

Moving into the hallway, she latches the deadbolt on the front door (silly, really—a locked door will do no good), then stops at the closet and grabs her grandfather’s old Winchester.  Rifle in hand, she climbs the stairs, the same stairs she’s climbed her whole life.  She thinks she can hear young Piper and Margot following behind her, whispering, warning her, telling her—as they did all those years ago—to forget all about it, that there is no 29th room. 
Amy takes each step slowly, willing herself not to run, to stay calm and not wake her family.  What would Mark think if he woke up and found his wife creeping up the steps with a gun?  Poor, sweet, clueless Mark—perhaps she should have told him the motel’s secrets?  But no.  It was better to protect him from it all as best she could.

The scarred wood beneath her feet creaks and she thinks of the rhyme her grandmother taught her: 
When Death comes knocking on your door, you’ll think you’ve seen his face before.
When he comes creeping up your stairs, you’ll know him from your dark nightmares.
And if you hold up a mirror, you shall see,
That he is you and you are he.

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Night Sister, Jennifer's gripping new novel about the dark legacy that haunts a Vermont family.

1. Sylvie and Rose are rivals, while Piper and Margot have a close bond. What determines whether sisters get along? How do the siblings in the book compare to yours?

2. Amy, Piper, and Margot are first-rate sleuths at age twelve. What’s special about that age? Are adolescents better than their parents at seeing the truth and having an open mind?

3. Discuss the novel’s interwoven timelines. Would you rather grow up in the 21st century, the 1950s, or the 1980s? In The Night Sister, what stays the same throughout all three eras?

4. What fuels Jason’s attraction to Amy? How do his feelings about her change throughout their lifetimes?

5. How was your reading affected by Sylvie’s letters to Alfred Hitchcock, and the real-life connection to Vermont in The Trouble with Harry? How do you think Hitchcock and his staff would have responded to her letters?

6. What were your theories about Fenton? How did your opinion of him shift?

7. With echoes of Psycho’s Bates Motel, what makes the Tower Motel a powerful setting for this storyline? What did the tower represent to each generation? What did you expect the 29th room to look like?

8. Compare the novel’s three marriages: Charlotte and Clarence, Amy and Mark, Margot and Jason. What are the greatest strengths and vulnerabilities in these relationships?

9. What did you believe about the moth Rose keeps in a jar?

10. “Mare” is an Old English word, not an invention of the author; we use it when we talk about nightmares. How did you react to Oma’s lessons about mares? What do you believe about the tangible nature of evil?

11. What do you predict for Rose and Lou? As mothers, did Charlotte and Amy do the right thing?

12. At the heart of the novel is a legacy of secrecy. Are there any long-held secrets in your family? What would it take to be ostracized by your relatives?

13. How does The Night Sister enhance your experience of Jennifer McMahon’s previous novels? What is unique about the way her characters confront the unknown?

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