“Twenty-five years ago, I killed my mother.” It is with this jarring line that Sarah Zettel first introduces readers to the chaotic world of the Monroe sisters in her latest novel, “The Other Sister.” The story is told from the perspectives of Geraldine and Marie Monroe as they reconnect after years apart following the suspicious death of their mother. Geraldine believes she is responsible for her mother’s death, but the true details soon become clear and what actually happened is much more complex than the average whodunnit mystery.
At the start of the novel, the reader is kept in the dark. You know the sisters’ mother is dead but do not know how she died or who exactly was involved. You know Martin, their father, has done unspeakable things to his daughters but not what those things are. You also know the sisters have come together under the guise of celebrating the graduation of Marie’s son, but are in fact planning to do something terrible to Martin.
Martin is an irritating and pompous man who is easy to hate because he is an incredibly creepy and disgusting person. Much of the novel revolves around the relationship he has with his daughters and the ways he has abused them during both their childhoods and adult lives. Marie is seen as “the good sister” who is kept on a chain at the beck and call of Martin. While Marie’s life revolves around serving her father, Geraldine, the self-described “bad sister,” has spent her life trying to escape her deranged family. Although the idea of the good and bad sister is hammered home in the novel, the characters themselves are not so clear cut. Both sisters make questionable choices that lead to more drama and in some cases, death. Their controversial decisions make them hard to care about at times, but also reflect the blurred lines of good and bad present in all people.
The details of what happened the night of their mother’s death and what their father has done to push the sisters to the brink are revealed in a series of flashbacks over the course of the novel. However, as their plans for revenge against their father unfold and the nature of their mother’s death becomes clearer, the plot seems to drive the characters more than the characters drive the plot. The goals of the sisters sometimes change on a whim if doing so will add drama to the story, and they act out of character on more than one occasion. As the story progresses the sisters make the decision to never speak of their plans for their father and act as if nothing is going on to ensure they will not be found out if questioned by the police. Their acting makes sense in the context of the plot, but makes it difficult to determine who Marie and Geraldine really are and what they truly desire. Readers can never be sure when they are putting on a show or are actually saying what they mean, which distances them from the sisters and disconnects them from the story.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the attention it gives to the role of women in classic fairytales. Geraldine is a lecturer on folklore at the university where she teaches, and excerpts from her fictional book “Fairy Tales in the Real World” are provided at the beginning of most chapters. The excerpts offer unique insight into the portrayal of females in folklore and the stories they inhabit, as well as how patriarchal influence is alarmingly present in the stories so many children grow up with.
While “The Other Sister” has many flaws in its characters and plot, its fairytale influences (as well as its twisted characters and storylines) make for an unexpected and entertaining read.