Sixteen years ago, Sylvie’s sister, Persephone, never came home. Out late with the boyfriend she was forbidden to see, Persephone was missing for three days before her body was found—and years later, her murder is still unsolved.
In the present day, Sylvie returns home to care for her estranged mother, Annie, as she undergoes treatment for cancer. Prone to unexplained “Dark Days” even before Persephone’s death, Annie’s once-close bond with Sylvie dissolved in the weeks after their loss, making for an uncomfortable reunion all these years later. Adding to the discomfort, Persephone’s former boyfriend is now a nurse at the cancer center where Annie is being treated. Sylvie has always believed Ben was responsible for the murder—but she carries her own guilt about that night, guilt that traps her in the past while the world goes on around her.
As she navigates the complicated relationship with her mother, Sylvie begins to uncover the secrets that fill their house—and what really happened the night Persephone died.
The Winter Sister is a “bewitching” (Kirkus Reviews) portrayal of the complex bond between sisters, between mothers and daughters alike, and “will captivate you from suspenseful start to surprising finish” (Kathleen Barber, author of Are You Sleeping).
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
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The Winter Sister
When they found my sister’s body, the flyers we’d hung around town were still crisp against the telephone poles. The search party still had land to scour; the batteries in their flashlights still held a charge. Persephone had been missing for less than seventy-two hours when a jogger caught a glimpse of her red coat through the snow, but by then, my mother had already become a stranger to me.
On the first morning of my sister’s disappearance, Mom locked herself in her bedroom. I stayed in my room, too—my and Persephone’s room—but I left the door ajar. For a long time, I watched the plows push through the foot of snow that had fallen overnight, and I kept imagining I saw Persephone out there, her fingers tapping on the window that fogged with my breath, and my hand opening it. Opening it every time.
The hours of that day were punctuated by my mother’s sobs. In fourteen years of being her daughter, I’d never heard such a thing. Even on the fifteenth of every month—what Persephone, rolling her eyes, called “Mom’s Dark Day”—there was only silence behind her bedroom door. Whenever she emerged the next morning, her eyelids were always swollen, but I had never actually heard her pain. But on this day, the first day, she cried so hard and so loud that I could swear I saw my paintbrushes quiver in their cup on my desk.
It wasn’t until years later that I wondered why my mother didn’t try to be strong for me, tell me that Persephone was just being Persephone and that she’d be home before we knew it. What did she know right then? What does a mother feel in her bones when her daughter stops breathing?
Aunt Jill came over with my cousin, Missy, at five o’clock that first day. The roads were clear enough by then, though the snow banks were as tall as our mailbox. Jill tried for fifteen minutes to reach her younger sister. She leaned her forehead against Mom’s bedroom door and softly begged her to open up. When that didn’t work, and the sobs continued, she plucked a bobby pin from Missy’s bun and picked at the lock until the pin snapped between her fingers. “For Christ’s sake, Annie,” she said. Then she ushered my cousin and me to the kitchen where she splayed out Missy’s issues of Seventeen and told us to sit tight while she called the police from my room.
Mom had already contacted the cops early that morning, her sentences sharp and shrill as she berated them for saying they’d “make a note of it” and that she should call back later if Persephone hadn’t come home. Then she’d hung up with a long, tearful moan, and that’s when she went to her room and shut the door. Even as the hours passed and daylight turned to dusk, she never did call them back. She stayed locked away, sobbing, the phone undisturbed on its hook.
Now, I could hear Jill spelling Persephone’s name as she told the police that her niece had been missing for an entire day. But was she really missing? I’d seen her ride off with Ben the night before, just as the first flakes fell, and although I hated him more than I hated stiff paintbrushes or the loneliness of Mom’s Dark Days, I hoped she was with him still—angry at me, maybe, but okay just the same.
“Tell them to check with her boyfriend,” I told my aunt, stepping into the room. My voice startled her.
“Hold on a moment,” Jill told the police. “What boyfriend, Sylvie?”
This was the second way in twenty-four hours that I betrayed my sister.
Ben was a secret—our secret, Persephone loved to remind me. The way he drove down our street and parked his car a couple houses down was a secret. The way Persephone opened the window in our room and straddled the sill until one foot touched the ground was a secret. And here were some more: how I’d keep the window open, just enough for her to slip her fingers under and pull it up when she returned; how, on many of those nights, I’d wake hours later to the cold shock of her snapping back my sheets. Sylvie, she’d whisper, her voice hoarse in the darkness. I need you. And then began the biggest secret of all.
“Ben Emory,” I told my aunt. “The mayor’s son. He graduated last year, and Persephone’s been seeing him. But Mom doesn’t know.”
Jill frowned, the skin between her eyebrows wrinkling. “Why not?”
“We’re not allowed to date. But Persephone sneaks out all the time to see him anyway. She left with him last night, about ten thirty.”
Jill’s eyes widened. “Sylvie,” she said. “Why didn’t you . . .” But then she shook her head, leaving the question unfinished, and put the phone back up to her ear. “She was last seen with Ben Emory,” she said.
My pulse pounded as I walked back to the kitchen table, where Missy was braiding her hair to match a bright, glossy photo in one of the magazines. She was sixteen, the age smack-dab between Persephone and me, but she was carrying on as if this were a slumber party.
Why didn’t you? Jill had asked, and it was a reasonable question. Why didn’t I tell my mother about Ben the second I jolted awake that morning, the stillness of the house alerting me to Persephone’s continued absence? I’d like to believe I was trying to protect Persephone’s secret—our secret—but the truth, I know, is that I was trying to protect myself.
A little while later, Jill hurried into the kitchen to ask me for the names of Persephone’s friends.
“Ben,” I said.
“I called over there already. I had to leave a message because no one picked up. Who else?”
I shrugged, and then mentioned some girls I’d once seen Persephone with in the library as they worked on a project for school. Jill retreated back to my room, and I listened through the thin walls as, call after call, she reached a dead end: “Oh, they’re not really friends? Okay, well thank you anyway. Let me give you my number just in case she . . .”
When she ran out of people to contact, Jill insisted we try to sleep—me in my bed, Missy in Persephone’s, Jill on the lumpy couch in the living room. For a while that night, I kept myself awake, listening for the tap of Persephone’s fingers on the window. All I ever heard, though, were Missy’s kitten-like snores in my sister’s bed, and the sound of Persephone’s watch, ticking on somewhere in the room like a promise.
• • •
On the morning of the second day, I waited for Mom outside her door, sitting like a puppy that had been shut out. Normally, she was able to soothe me in ways that nothing else, not even painting, could. Her hand on my forehead was a cool washcloth, her voice a lullaby. We often played a game where she pretended to plant a garden on my face, using her fingers to show me where the roses would go (on my cheek) or where the lilies would be (on my forehead). “You’re blooming,” she’d say, and then she’d pretend to pick some of the flowers. “I’ve got three roses, two hydrangea bunches, and a stem of baby’s breath. How much will that cost me?” She’d pinch her fingers together as if holding a tiny bouquet. “It’ll cost you one hug,” I’d say, and then we’d hold each other tightly, laughing at how ridiculous we were, how happy.
But when her door finally creaked open, her eyes were so swollen they looked as if they’d been punched. Her cheeks seemed to sag, and she was still wearing the bathrobe she’d had on the morning before when I told her that Persephone was gone.
She looked at me on the floor but didn’t kneel down beside me or put her hand on my head. It was almost as if she knew what I had done, and hated me for it.
“Did she . . .” were the only words she uttered, and I felt how deeply I was failing her when I shook my head.
The doorbell rang just then, and Mom ran down the hall to the front door as Jill rounded the corner from the living room. They opened it together without a word, and I craned my neck to see between them. Missy was still asleep in my sister’s bed, and I couldn’t wait to tell Persephone that. “It was so weird,” I would say. “She just kept sleeping as if it was a vacation or something. I mean, you’re missing, right? But she’s just snoring away in there.” I could hear our laughter, even as I watched the police enter the house.
Two officers, a man and a woman, stood in the cramped entryway of our small two-bedroom ranch. They wiped their feet on the doormat, their hands on their belts like they were about to start line dancing.
“Are you Ms. O’Leary?” the male officer asked Mom.
“Yes,” she said huskily. “Yes, that’s me.”
“And I’m Jill Foster.” Jill stepped forward. “I’m the one who called last night.”
“I’m Detective Falley,” the female officer said, “and this is my partner, Detective Parker.” She gestured to the man beside her, who was looking beyond us as if already trying to find clues within the walls of our house. “I wanted to let you know, first of all, that we followed up on what you reported to our desk sergeant, and we spoke to Ben Emory.”
Mom stumbled backward a little. “What’s he got to do with this?”
“We understand,” Detective Falley said, “that he’s the last person your daughter was seen with.”
Mom spun around to look at me, and her eyes seemed grayer than usual, clouded by the horror gathering on her face. I looked at my feet, wiggling my big toe through the hole in my sock.
“Did you know about this?” she asked me.
I swallowed. “Yes,” I said. “I saw her leave with him. She . . .” I paused, unsure of how far to go in my betrayal. Then I looked up, keeping my eyes on the detectives, neither of whom could have been more than thirty-five. Parker even had a small patch of zits around his nose.
“She sneaks out of the house a lot to see him,” I said. “He’s her boyfriend. They’ve been doing this for months.”
Any color left on my mother’s face disappeared. Her skin became as gray as her eyes, as gray as the cold light from the cloudy sky outside. “Boyfriend?” she asked, her voice quivering.
“This is Sylvie,” Aunt Jill said to the detectives, gesturing toward me. “She’s my niece. Persephone’s sister.”
Falley nodded. “Ben says he doesn’t know where she is. Says they were driving around, got into a fight, and she demanded to be let out of the car so she could walk home. He says he let her off on Weston Road and then waited out the storm at his friend’s house overnight. We checked with the friend’s mother and she confirmed that Ben arrived around eleven p.m. and stayed until ten or so the next morning.”
“Then where is she?” I asked. “And why would she want to walk home when it was snowing? Ben’s lying! He has to know where she is.”
The detectives looked at me. Aunt Jill looked at me. But Mom just stared into nothing.
“He says she was very adamant about leaving the car,” Falley said. “Says she was opening the door and seemed ready to jump out if he didn’t stop. According to him, he pulled over to try to calm her down, but then she got out and wouldn’t get back inside. Says he got mad himself and finally drove off.”
“What were they fighting about?” Jill asked.
“Sounds like typical relationship drama,” Falley said. “He says she got angry when he snapped at her about something. It escalated from there.”
I shook my head. The only part of Ben’s story I believed was that he’d gotten mad at her. I had seen plenty of evidence of his anger; I knew he was dangerous, but I also knew that Persephone never shied away from danger.
“We’re going to question him more about the fight,” Parker finally chimed in. His voice was deeper than I expected, and this comforted me. I didn’t know my father—my mother had always told me I’d been the product of a one-night stand, or a “one-night miracle,” as she liked to say—but I always imagined that when he spoke, his voice was strong and unwavering, the way that Parker’s was now.
“We drove around Weston Road, where Mr. Emory said he let her off, but we haven’t found anything yet,” he continued. “Please understand, though—we’re doing everything we can to locate your daughter.” He said this directly to Mom, who was leaning into the coatrack. She looked so fragile that the jackets and scarves tossed over the hooks seemed strong enough to bear her weight. “We’re going to talk to the people who were operating the snowplows that night, see if they saw anyone walking around. In the meantime—can you think of anywhere she might have gone? Friends’ houses? Places nearby that she frequents?” He pulled a small notepad out of his back pocket and clicked the top of a pen.
I looked at Mom, waiting to see if she’d answer, but her eyes were still locked on some distant air.
“I . . . there’s . . .” I tried. Then I cleared my throat as Parker turned his attention to me. “Well, my aunt and cousin live just over in Hanover. But . . . they’re here, so she’s obviously not with them. Um, there’s also . . .”
But there wasn’t also.
“I don’t know,” I said. “The only person she really hangs out with anymore is Ben.”
That’s when the coatrack crashed to the floor. It landed across the entryway like a fallen tree, separating the detectives from my mother, Aunt Jill, and me. We all jumped backward. All except Mom, that is—because she’d pushed it over.
Next came the little yellow table where we dumped our mail and keys when we walked in the door. With one quick shove, it clattered to the floor, and Mom reached for one of the legs, snapping it off as if it were nothing more than a twig. We were all stunned, even the detectives, and it wasn’t until Mom swung the table leg against the entryway mirror that Parker stepped over the coatrack and grabbed her arms. Mom struggled against him, her bathrobe opening, revealing the stained T-shirt she wore underneath, and when he tightened his grip, she screamed.
“Annie!” Aunt Jill cried. “What are you doing? Calm down!”
This only made her scream louder, her face reddening like a newborn’s, and she kicked and twisted until Parker’s hands loosened just long enough for her to escape. She jumped over the coatrack and ran down the hall. We turned the corner as her bedroom door slammed shut, Missy standing in the hall with wide sleep-filled eyes.
“Mom?” she said to my aunt. “What happened? Is Persephone back?”
Any answer Jill might have given was lost in the sounds coming from Mom’s room. Furniture crashed. Throaty growls gave way to high-pitched screams. I recognized the squeak of her mattress as she—what? Pummeled her fists against it? Detective Parker marched forward and tried the knob. When the door wouldn’t open, he looked back at us. “Falley,” he said, and his partner nodded, steering me into the living room.
“Does your mother do this a lot?” she asked. She bent over slightly, staring into my eyes. “Has she thrown things and gotten angry like this before?”
I could hear Jill’s voice pleading from down the hall—“Annie, please, open up. We’ll find her, I know we will”—and I knew that Falley was waiting for me to say something, but I’d already forgotten what she’d asked. Who was that woman inside my mother’s room? What rabid animal was making those noises?
“Sylvie,” Falley said. “It’s Sylvie, right?”
I nodded slowly.
“Have you ever known your mother to hurt your sister—physically?”
“Um,” I said, “she . . . what did you say?”
“Annie, please. Open the door and let me be here for you.”
“Ms. O’Leary, would you mind opening the door for a moment?”
“I said, have you ever known your mother to hurt your sister? Did she maybe hit her one time? Push her?”
I later learned that Falley was breaking protocol by asking me these questions—not because she felt that the situation was too urgent for all the red tape of recording devices and child psychologists, but because she was, in fact, a young detective. She’d only been promoted to that title six months before, and when she put her hands on my shoulders that day, they were shaking.
“Sylvie,” she said, “do you understand what I’m asking you?”
Something about my mother. Something about somebody hurting my sister.
No one thought to look at my hands. But even if they’d noticed the splotches of blue and gray on my fingers, or the flashes of red near my nails, they wouldn’t have connected it to Persephone walking toward Ben’s car and not coming back. They wouldn’t have seen it as evidence of a terrible crime. But Sylvie, she’d whispered the night before she disappeared, I need you.
• • •
As usual, I hadn’t heard her return. I’d only woken to the feeling of my sheets and comforter being ripped off my body. “No,” I groaned, trying to roll toward the wall.
“Yes,” Persephone said, grabbing my arms and shaking me. “There’s not much this time. Come on, you have to do this for me.”
I opened my eyes to find my mother staring at me. That’s what it seemed like, anyway, the two looked so similar—their large gray eyes, their blonde hair, their chins that came to a delicate point beneath their mouths. I knew that my sister and I had two different fathers, but with my brown hair and brown eyes and paler-than-pale complexion, it always surprised me how little I resembled the rest of my family.
Persephone leaned over and swung her head so that her hair tickled my face.
“I can do this all night,” she said. She moved even closer to me, still swishing her hair around, but now the gold necklace she always wore fell forward, and the tip of the starfish pendant grazed my lips.
“Okay, fine,” I conceded, pushing her hair, her necklace, away. “Show me.”
Persephone turned on my bedside lamp and lifted the side of her shirt. “There’s this one,” she said, pointing to a fresh bruise the size of a quarter just beneath her rib cage. “But Mom won’t see that one.” She let her shirt fall back down and then showed me the inside of her right wrist. There were two more bruises rising toward the surface of her skin. “It’s just these ones really.”
I swore I knew the size of Ben’s fingertips better than I knew my own. I sighed as I reached beneath my desk for the bucket of acrylic paints Mom had bought me for Christmas two months earlier. Grabbing some brushes and a Styrofoam palette, I sat back down beside my sister. Then I took her arm in my hand and turned it this way and that, assessing my canvas.
I worked in silence. I squirted Midnight Blue onto my palette and mixed it with Eggshell, not bothering to ask Persephone why she stayed with him. As I painted a moon over the first of the bruises, then crossed it with red-tinged waves that covered the other, I didn’t remind her that I thought love should be painless, that it shouldn’t be sneaking in and out of windows, or blood vessels bursting. We’d already had those conversations before, and they all ended the same way: “You don’t understand. You don’t know him. It’s not what you think.”
“Okay,” I told Persephone, lifting my brush from her skin. “I’m done.”
She smiled approvingly at the moonscape, and I rubbed at the colors that had bled onto my hands. There were always traces of my work on my own skin in the morning, and though my mother often commented on what I’d done to Persephone, praising me for the “beautiful little tattoos” I’d given her, she never seemed to notice the tattoos I’d given myself, the paint that screamed on my knuckles and fingers. When Persephone showered each day, she was careful to keep her concealed bruises away from the water. When I showered, I scrubbed and scrubbed.
• • •
“Sylvie.” Detective Falley squeezed my shoulder gently. “Are you okay?”
The screaming had stopped. The hammering and crashing of furniture had stopped. Now, all I could hear from down the hall was the faint sound of paper being ripped, over and over, ssshhhhk, ssshhhhk, ssshhhhk. What could she be tearing in there? Photographs? Letters? Secrets? Later that day, when Mom finally left her room to use the bathroom, I crept across the hallway to find that it was a calendar she’d been destroying. Scraps of months lay scattered across the carpet like seeds in a garden, and among all those fragmented squares of dates, every fifteenth was circled in red.
“I’m really sorry about this, Detective,” Aunt Jill was saying to Parker as they walked into the living room, where Falley still bent toward me with concerned eyes. “I don’t know what to say.”
Missy followed them. She was wearing one of Persephone’s T-shirts, which snapped “I DON’T CARE.” I hadn’t seen her take it from our dresser the night before or I would have offered her some of my own clothes to wear. Missy shuffled in slippers—Persephone’s slippers—toward the couch.
“Are you able to stay here for a while?” Detective Parker asked Jill. “With the family?” He shifted his eyes toward me.
“Of course,” Jill said. “The girls have tomorrow off for Presidents’ Day. I’m a teacher’s aide—over at the middle school in Hanover?—so I’m off, too. We can be here, no problem.”
“Good,” Parker said. “Now, do you have a recent picture of Persephone we can take with us?”
“Yes!” Jill said. “I actually took out the photo albums first thing this morning. I was thinking of making some flyers to hang around town.” She walked into the kitchen, which was open to the living room, and flipped through one of the faux-leather books on the table. “It would just feel better to actively do something, you know?”
She pulled my sister’s senior portrait, taken earlier that school year, from its plastic sheath. In the photo, a painted bruise peeked out from Persephone’s neckline, a shadow to anyone who didn’t know, but to me, a focal point.
“So should I put the police station’s number on the flyers,” Jill asked, “or have people call us directly?”
Parker reached into his pocket and handed Jill a card in exchange for the picture. “Thank you,” he said. “You can put that info on the signs. Though I should warn you that, with things like this, we get a lot of false information. Ninety-five percent of the calls that come in are useless.”
“Well, that still leaves five percent,” Jill replied.
Ssshhhhk, ssshhhhk, ssshhhhk. In my mother’s room, paper kept ripping.
Clearing his throat, Parker rubbed his hand over the light brown stubble on his face. “Just a couple more things,” he said, shifting his gaze toward me. “Is it okay if I ask you some questions, Sylvie, before we go?”
I looked to my aunt.
“Go ahead, Sylvie,” she said. “It’s okay.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, that’s fine.”
Parker looked down at his notepad and clicked the top of his pen. “Your aunt reported that you saw your sister drive off with Ben Emory at about ten thirty the night before last. Is that correct?”
“And how did she seem just before she left? Was she angry, for example? Sad? Excited to see her boyfriend?”
I imagined what the expression on her face must have been as she looked at me through the window Friday night, her breath making ghosts on the glass as she called my name. She must have looked angry, annoyed. She must have looked ready to kill me.
“I don’t know,” I told Parker. “I guess she was . . . neutral.”
He made a note on his pad. “Okay. Now, you also mentioned that she snuck out a lot to see him. Why is that?”
Everyone stared at me, the two detectives standing closest, my aunt and cousin on opposite ends of the room. So much seemed to hang on what I had to say, but how could a fourteen-year-old girl be expected to know what needed knowing?
“She’s not allowed to date,” I said. “Neither of us are. But I’m—I wouldn’t date yet anyway.”
“So your mother had no idea that your sister has been seeing Mr. Emory?”
“Well,” I started, “she didn’t know she was still seeing him.”
“Go on,” Parker prompted.
“My mom came home from the diner one night—she’s a waitress; I don’t know if that matters—and she found Persephone with Ben. They were just watching TV, I think, but it was the first time she’d ever brought a guy home, and my mom got upset. Persephone had broken the rule.”
From there, after Ben had slinked out the front door, the two of them erupted at each other, Mom yelling at Persephone for her “blatant disrespect” and Persephone screaming right back about Mom “treating us like babies.” At one point, Persephone knocked over a lamp with her wild gesticulations, and they both stared at it on the floor for a moment. Then Persephone tore off its flimsy shade and threw it across the room, where it whizzed by Mom’s face and toppled some picture frames.
“Since then,” I told Detective Parker, “Persephone’s always just snuck out to see him.”
“How well do you know him?” Falley jumped in.
“I barely know him at all. He graduated last year, so I’ve never even gone to the same school as him.”
“And Persephone’s a senior this year, correct?” Parker asked.
“Yes,” Jill and I said in unison.
Falley took a step toward me. “The reason I asked, Sylvie,” she said, “is because when we first got here, you seemed pretty sure that Ben had something to do with your sister being missing. Why is that?”
“Has he ever hurt your sister before, or done anything that would put her at risk?”
“I . . .” I looked around the room. Four sets of eyes were latched onto me. “Like I said, I don’t really know him.”
“That wasn’t the question,” Parker said.
Why was I being interrogated? And where was the hot, bald light I’d seen on TV shows, the one that would shine on my face and sweat out all my secrets? At least then I wouldn’t have a choice if I betrayed Persephone. As it was, though, the living room was cool and gray. The faces of the detectives remained serious, but kind enough.
Aunt Jill came to put her arm around my shoulder protectively. I leaned into her, grateful for the save, but then she whispered in my ear, “It’s okay, Sylvie. Just tell the detectives whatever you know.”
We’re sisters, Sylvie, Persephone would always say. And that’s sacred. So I know your promise to keep this a secret isn’t just words. It means something to you. Just like you mean something to me, and just like I hope—I really, really hope—I mean something to you.
Of course you do, I’d say.
Then prove it.
“I don’t know if he ever hurt her.” I looked at Falley and Parker, at Aunt Jill. I even looked at Missy, who sat with her chin resting on the palm of her hand. They were all listening to me, somehow sure that I had the right answers. “He just has to know where she is. She was with him that night.”
Ssshhhhk, ssshhhhk, ssshhhhk.
Falley glanced back toward the hallway, listening to the muted sounds of my mother’s rage. She looked at her partner before speaking.
“Sylvie,” she began, “when your mother’s acted like this in the past, did she—”
“My mother’s never acted like this,” I interrupted. “She’s never had a daughter who’s been missing before.”
Silence spread through the room like a gas. Even the sound of paper paused, and I imagined it was because Mom had heard me defend her. I could almost feel the soft approval of her fingers stroking my cheek.
The detectives shared a glance, Falley tilting her head at Parker, her eyes asking a question I couldn’t read. Then Parker nodded, closing his notebook and clicking his pen one more time.
“Thank you,” Parker said. “You have our information. Please feel free to call us anytime.”
He slipped his notepad into his pocket and headed toward the front door. Falley stayed behind a moment to put her hand on my shoulder. “You’re being really brave,” she said gently. “We’ll find your sister. Don’t worry.”
Aunt Jill walked toward the entryway to see them out, and I sank into the couch cushions, which were still blanketed with Jill’s makeshift bed.
“This is crazy,” Missy said, the expression on her face one of slow understanding, as if she was just beginning to comprehend how serious the situation was.
Down the hall, behind my mother’s door, the sound of shredding paper started up again.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Winter Sister includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Megan Collins. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Sixteen years ago, Sylvie’s sister, Persephone, never came home. Out too late with the boyfriend she was forbidden to see, Persephone was missing for three days before her body was found—and years later, her murder remains unsolved. In the present day, Sylvie returns home to care for her estranged mother, Annie, who is undergoing treatment for cancer. Prone to unexplained “Dark Days” even before Persephone’s death, Annie let her once-close bond with Sylvie dissolve in the weeks after their loss, making for an uncomfortable reunion all these years later. Worse, Persephone’s former boyfriend, Ben, is now a nurse at the cancer center where Annie is being treated. Sylvie’s always believed Ben was responsible for the murder—but she carries her own guilt about that night, guilt that traps her in the past while the world goes on around her. As she navigates the complicated relationship with her mother, Sylvie begins to uncover the secrets that fill their house—and what happened the night Persephone died. As it turns out, the truth really will set you free, once you can begin to look at it.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The title of Megan Collins’s debut novel is The Winter Sister. Which sister do you think the title refers to—Sylvie or Persephone? Why do you think Collins chooses to leave this interpretation open to the reader?
2. Even though Lauren is Sylvie’s best friend, Sylvie reveals that she has lied about the truth of Persephone’s death for the majority of their relationship. How would you feel if you found out that an important person in your life had lied about something like this? Would you try to understand? Feel betrayed? How do you think your relationship with that person would change after the fact?
3. Although Sylvie never forgets about Persephone, she doesn’t actively reinvestigate her sister’s case until after she returns to Spring Hill. Why do you think her homecoming sparks a renewed dedication in solving Persephone’s cold case? Is it returning to Spring Hill itself? Seeing her mother in a weakened state? Make a list of Sylvie’s possible motivations, and share them with your fellow book club members to compare.
4. The majority of the novel takes place sixteen years after Persephone’s death, but the loss still feels fresh for many characters in the novel. Consider the following passage: “I didn’t know that stars don’t last forever. I had no idea that the light we see is just an echo of an old burn, or that, most of the time, it’s the absence of a glow, instead of the glow itself, that goes on and on and on” (p. 45). How is this a metaphor for Persephone? How does her absence continue to affect the lives of Sylvie, Annie, Jill, and Ben? How might things have been different for them had she survived? Do you think that the effects of a loss like this can ever dissipate?
5. Even though she’s been convinced her entire life that Ben was the one who killed Persephone, Sylvie finally decides to hear what he has to say at the end of chapter 11. Why do you think she makes the decision to trust him? How do you think the novel would have progressed if Sylvie had chosen differently?
6. Annie always warned Sylvie about Tommy Dent, so Sylvie is shocked when she learns that her mother and Tommy spent time together after Persephone’s death. Consider Annie’s perspective in this situation. Do you think there was more to her relationship with Tommy than just the pills? Why or why not? Does Annie deserve any sympathy for her “deal” with Tom?
7. “We O’Leary women—we keep our promises to our sisters” (p. 162). In chapter 17, Annie reveals that Jill knew she had a drug problem after Persephone’s death but promised to keep it secret. This echoes a quote from chapter 1: “We’re sisters, Sylvie, Persephone would always say. And that’s sacred. So I know your promise to keep this a secret isn’t just words. It means something to you” (pp. 14–15). Discuss the parallels between Jill and Annie’s relationship and that of Sylvie and Persephone. What role do secrets play in these relationships? How did Jill’s and Sylvie’s choices to keep their sisters’ secrets affect their lives? When is it better to tell a secret than to keep one? Discuss as a group.
8. Sylvie and Annie both had a deep desire to protect Persephone, even though it came at a cost to her. Sylvie locked the window “because I’d loved her, deeply, and I’d wanted to save her from herself” (p. 251), while Annie was “rescuing Persephone from a life in the Underworld” (p. 156). Examine the theme of protecting loved ones throughout the novel. Do you think either Sylvie or Annie actually had the power to protect Persephone? What about Ben? Is it ever really possible to protect someone?
9. Ben eventually reveals to Sylvie the real reason behind Persephone’s bruises. Were you surprised by his explanation? If you were Sylvie, would you forgive him for what he did? Why or why not?
10. Annie keeps perhaps the biggest secret of all in The Winter Sister. Why do you think she ultimately chose not to tell Persephone her father’s identity? Do you think Annie was genuinely naïve about Persephone and Ben’s relationship? Afraid about what might happen were she to tell the truth? Both? Share your thoughts with your book club.
11. Persephone and Annie’s relationship is a tumultuous one at best, but as Annie puts it, “I couldn’t get too close to her just to lose her someday” (p. 271). Did you ever have a “tough love” relationship with anyone as a child? How did it affect your relationship with that person as an adult? What’s your perspective on this relationship now?
12. There are several characters in the novel that could have viably murdered Persephone. Were you surprised when you finally found out the killer’s identity? Why or why not? Share some of the theories you had while reading and explain how those theories might have changed throughout the course of the novel.
13. Ben and Sylvie develop a semiromantic relationship while they work together to find out what happened to Persephone. If you were to revisit them a year from now, do you think they would be together? Why or why not?
14. Tattoos are a recurring motif throughout The Winter Sister. Sylvie paints them on Persephone as a child to hide her bruises and later becomes a tattoo artist as an adult. At the end of the book, Sylvie decides to give up the career, musing, “I no longer needed to watch a needle sink pigment into flesh, no longer needed to punish myself by reenacting what I’d done to Persephone, always seeing her arm instead of the client’s” (p. 311). How was tattooing a punishment for Sylvie, and how does giving it up signify her healing?
15. Paint is another motif that plays an important role in the novel. As Sylvie says of the medium: “Paint is stubborn. It clings instead of chips, and even after more than a decade, it has to be scraped and scraped and scraped” (p. 177). How is this a metaphor for her grief over Persephone? Why do you think she chooses to paint over the constellation on her mother’s living room wall at the end of the novel, rather than try to scrape it off? What is the significance of Sylvie and Annie doing this together?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Find an anthology of Greek myths and as a group, acquaint yourselves with the story of Persephone, Hades, and Demeter. Discuss the connections between this myth and The Winter Sister. Make sure to bring some traditional Greek food—stuffed grape leaves, spanakopita, and baklava—to share with your fellow book club members!
2. Sylvie painted unique tattoos onto Persephone’s body to hide her bruises and continued to tattoo as an adult. Now it’s your turn! Put all of the book club members’ names into a hat and take turns picking. Then, draw a unique “tattoo” for the book club member you selected. Share your drawings with the group and discuss your design. Why did you choose this particular “tattoo” for the book club member you selected? Does it say something about their personality? Is it something significant or meaningful to them, or something completely random? Discuss the stories tattoos can tell and consider the role that a tattoo artist plays in helping someone to visibly share their story with the world.
3. Annie reads Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights throughout the course of the novel, but at The Winter Sister’s end, she declares that she never wants to read the story ever again. Sylvie tries to recall the plot: “Two lovers, from vastly different circumstances, spend much of their lives with other people, their obsessive love for each other still raging around inside them, turning one ill, the other withered and bitter” (pp. 322–323). Read Wuthering Heights for your next book club pick and compare and contrast Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship with Annie and Will’s. How are they similar? Different? Discuss other famous “doomed relationships” in literary works—Romeo and Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, Gatsby and Daisy from The Great Gatsby, Vronsky and Anna from Anna Karenina. Why do you think stories of doomed romances continue to draw readers? Do you think they can affect perceptions of what romance in real life should look like?
4. Sylvie has been involved with art for her entire adult life, starting at the age of four when she painted a “constellation” of Persephone on her mother’s living room wall. Look at works of famous artists who also started painting as children—Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Michelangelo are all good examples. Compare how their works evolved from childhood to adulthood. Is there anything similar between their early and late works? How do you think getting involved in art from an early age affects adult life? Is it ever too late to start a creative path? In honor of Sylvie and getting in touch with your inner child (and creative artist!), attend a local wine and paint night as a group. The person with the best painting gets to choose next month’s book!
5. Stay updated on Megan Collins’s latest projects! Follow Megan on her website, https://megancollins.com, to read some of her other published works and to hear about what she’s working on next.
A Conversation with Megan Collins
This is your debut novel—congratulations! What was the journey to getting your first novel published like? What was the most challenging part of the process? The most rewarding?
It’s surely a cliché, but my journey has been one long, emotional, exhilarating roller coaster, with more highs and lows than I ever expected. The Winter Sister is my first published novel, but it’s actually the third that I’ve written. While I did not receive a book deal on either of my two other novels, I learned so much from each one about pacing, character development, voice, etc. It was extremely difficult having to move on from those projects and accept that it wasn’t the right time for either of them, but now that I do have a debut novel, it’s been incredible to start hearing from people who connect with my characters and the story I created. Something that was once just words on a computer screen is now a tangible story that readers can hold in their hands and see play out in their minds—and that is an incredible gift for which I’m grateful every day.
You’ve written short stories, reviews, and poems before; in fact, one of your poems, “Ars Poetica” (published in the New Verse News in 2016), was nominated for a Pushcart Prize! How is writing poetry different from writing a novel? When you started writing The Winter Sister, did you have to change your creative process?
While poetry requires an attention to rhythm and form in a way that fiction usually doesn’t, I think the two processes are more linked than a lot of people realize. No matter what your poem is about, your job as the poet is to tell a story, and that demands an understanding of voice and pacing. Similarly, a book could have the most compelling premise in the world, but if the sentences don’t sing, if the phrasing doesn’t feel well-chosen and precise, then a reader might not be entranced enough to continue. To me, poetry and fiction are both about casting spells with language in order to tell a powerful and memorable story. In writing The Winter Sister, I paid attention to how the cadence of my sentences could highlight and heighten the characters’ emotions—and my inclination to do so came entirely from my training in poetry.
The Winter Sister starts with a terrible crime—the murder of a teenage girl. Did any real-life cases inspire your work? If so, what kind of research did you do in order to bring Persephone’s story to life on the page? And if not, what first gave you the idea for The Winter Sister?
Persephone’s story isn’t inspired by a particular case in real life, but I am fairly obsessed with true crime (shout-out to the My Favorite Murder podcast!). Where Persephone’s story really originated for me was in thinking about the Greek myth of Persephone, in which Demeter, Persephone’s mother, becomes so consumed by grief when Persephone goes missing that she neglects her job of making crops grow on earth. I wondered what would have happened if Persephone had had a sister, left to navigate the rest of her childhood in the wake of her mother’s neglect, as well as her own grief over her sister’s absence.
Your debut novel tackles many themes, but one of the main topics is the complicated nature of relationships between women: mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, sisters and friends. What drew you to this theme? Are any of the relationships in the novel inspired by some of your own?
The bonds between mothers and daughters, as well as those between sisters, are so inherently rich and nuanced that it leaves a lot to explore. What I’m most interested in is relationships at crossroads, like Sylvie and Annie’s. They’ve spent years being estranged, and now they have the opportunity to begin to understand each other—as long as they can break old patterns. It’s the breaking of patterns, though, that’s so difficult to do, especially when there are years of hurt and tension involved. I wanted to explore how hurt and love can be intermingled, sometimes even inseparable, and how that often keeps us from letting go of a painful relationship for one that is healthier.
Annie named Persephone after a goddess she learned about in a Classics course when she got pregnant—but of course, Persephone is a name loaded with significance within the context of the novel. Could you tell us why you chose to give her the name you did? Do any of the other characters’ names have meaningful—but perhaps less obvious—significance?
I named Persephone to anchor The Winter Sister within its mythological context. If you know the myth, it’s difficult to read about a character named Persephone without automatically thinking of all the themes of that ancient story—grief, loss of innocence, maternal and filial bonds, etc. As for the other characters, they seemed to decide for themselves what they wanted to be called! I don’t remember selecting anyone else’s name. Sylvie was always Sylvie, Annie was always Annie, Ben was always Ben. I often find, when writing fiction, that my characters tell me what their names are, rather than the other way around.
Wuthering Heights is another famous story that makes its way into The Winter Sister. As an author, how do you draw parallels between your own work and those of other writers? Do you draw these connections on purpose, or are they more organic, popping up during the writing process and their meaning revealed after the fact?
In the case of Wuthering Heights, the connection there was serendipitous. It wasn’t until I’d written the first scene in which that book appears that I realized it wasn’t just a random choice; there were several parallels between that story and the one I was writing. It’s amazing to me what our brains can do on a subconscious level—especially when we think we’re only focused on writing smooth and engaging sentences! The Winter Sister’s connections to the Persephone myth were much more purposeful, of course. One way in which I tried to build those parallels was by using a lot of plant imagery when describing Annie, in order to cement her correlation to Demeter. There’s also a scene in which Persephone pricks her finger on the thorn of a white rose and rubs her blood across the petals. In the myth of Persephone, she’s often depicted as picking flowers at the moment Hades abducts her, so I wanted to have a similar image in my book that spoke to innocence versus experience, delicacy versus violence.
Although the reader doesn’t know what Sylvie’s next career path is, she eventually realizes that being a tattoo artist isn’t her true calling. Did you always want to be a writer? Did you test out other careers before you found your own calling?
I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was six years old, when I wrote my first story called “The Bad Cats.” (As indicated by the title, it was about some bad cats!) I still remember the exhilaration I felt holding the story in my hands, knowing that it only existed because I’d thought of it and written it down. As I grew older, I never wavered in my certainty that writing was my calling; I knew there was nothing else that could make me feel as alive, even in the many moments of frustration that inevitably come with the territory. Both my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in creative writing, and I’ve been teaching it for the past eleven years—because when I’m not writing myself, I want to be talking about it, reading about it, and helping other people do it!
Did any significant portions of the plot change from when you first started writing the novel to when you finished it? If so, could you explain how they evolved?
When I first conceived of this story, I had planned to have Persephone die from an accidental overdose while doing drugs with Ben. However, I quickly found that there weren’t very many places for that story to go. Sure, Sylvie would still have to cope with the loss of her sister, as well as the debilitating weight of hating and blaming Persephone’s boyfriend for so many years of her life, but there wasn’t much room for mystery or suspense. When I thought about Persephone being murdered instead, everything changed, and all the pieces of the plot started falling into place.
What’s a piece of advice you’d like to give aspiring writers? Is there anything you wish you knew about writing when you first started out?
Never give up. It sounds so simple, but it’s one of the hardest things to do. All writers—all artists, even—face painful rejections, and it’s easy to let those disappointments derail you. But there is someone out there who needs your story, your poem, your essay, your play, and if you keep on honing your craft, keep on pushing toward your goal, no matter how many agents or editors or literary journals say no—chances are, you will eventually get to that beautiful, dreamed-about yes.
When you’re not writing, you’re teaching creative writing. How has being a creative writing teacher helped you with your own writing? What’s been one of the most surprising or valuable lessons you’ve learned?
One of the things I love most about teaching is that I get to continue to be a student. Whether we’re workshopping someone’s poem or discussing a published story, the atmosphere is usually one of artists collaborating together, rather than the traditional teacher-student hierarchy. This means that I get to learn from my students’ ideas as much as they learn from mine. For more than a decade, I’ve had the incredible honor of teaching some very talented young writers, and watching them take risks and push themselves has continually inspired me to do the same. I’ve also learned that there’s no predicting when a breakthrough will come; you just have to approach the blank page with a willingness to struggle for what you want to say—and keep fighting for it until the moment you finally find the words.
What’s next in the cards for you? Are you working on any new projects right now? If so, could you tell us a little bit about them?
I’m currently at work on another novel, which, like The Winter Sister, is about a woman with a haunting past and complicated familial relationships. The protagonist of that story, however, has a journey that’s completely different from Sylvie’s—but that’s all I’ll say about it for now!