One of the few saving graces of Karen Dionne’s psychological thriller, “The Wicked Sister,” is that part of it takes place in Ann Arbor and the rest is set in the picturesque Upper Peninsula. Beyond those details, though, there’s not much to gush about in this book.
Admittedly, it was entertaining enough to hold my attention, but the novel sagged under bizarre plot points, stilted dialogue and nonexistent character motivations. The premise is simple if a bit hackneyed: After spending a decade and a half in a psychiatric hospital, 26-year-old Rachel Cunningham returns to the scene of her parents’ apparent murder-suicide — which Rachel believes she’s responsible for — to discover the truth of what really happened. The trouble is, her older sister Diana is a dangerous “psychopath” currently living in the secluded hunting lodge where their parents studied biology.
Told in parallel to Rachel’s story is that of her mother Jenny’s narrative almost 30 years before. Jenny is introduced immediately following the “accidental” drowning of a local toddler that she believes was committed at the hands of her eight-year-old daughter, Diana. Desperate to save face and to protect Diana from a lifetime of gossip and rumors, Jenny and her husband Peter quit their jobs at the University of Michigan and move to a log cabin in the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula away from any prying eyes. As Rachel returns to the U.P. to discover why her parents really died (which is not particularly difficult to figure out), readers gain an intimate look into the life of a mother who lives in fear of her own daughter.
Dionne’s writing is at its best when exploring Jenny’s more nuanced and interesting character arc. The emotional tensions that Diana causes between Jenny and Peter are intriguing. As Jenny struggles to rationalize Diana’s increasingly concerning behaviors — like throwing rocks at a bear cub, skinning and dissecting wild animals or trying to smother an infant Rachel — Peter either outright denies their existence or otherwise doesn’t understand his wife’s fears.
And understandably so: Accepting that your child is a comically evil monster is no easy task, and denying this reality for as long as possible is not unreasonable. Dionne capitalizes on this tension, using Diana to tease out emotionally fraught discussions between her parents.
Dionne captures the push-pull of parenthood, in which two individuals must agree on how best to raise a tiny human while also maintaining a healthy relationship between themselves. After Diana drowns a toddler, for example, Jenny is the one who initially wants to leave Ann Arbor, and she convinces a reluctant Peter to also quit his job at the University to make this possible. When Diana begins flaying animals, Peter suggests channeling Diana’s tendencies into a more productive activity, such as taxidermy; Jenny is clearly not on board with this, but she relents, albeit reluctantly. The complicating factor of their homicidal child gives further depth to their dynamic, much to the novel’s benefit.
But Jenny’s fascinating inner turmoil is not enough to distract from terrible dialogue and murky character motives, especially within the second daughter Rachel’s storyline. Case in point: Rachel travels back to her parent’s log cabin that her sister resides in, and inexplicably decides to hide in the attic so her sister doesn’t know she checked herself out of the hospital. But at this point in the novel, Rachel has no real reason to fear her sister (and though it’s clear from the first few pages of the novel that Diana is their parent’s murderer, Rachel doesn’t realize this until much later). Rachel camps out for several days but is eventually caught by Diana, who has known all along that Rachel was camped out in the attic. Diana then proceeds to lock Rachel in a cage so she can murder her. Already, these events make little sense, but as the novel progresses, somehow, it gets worse.
In the novel’s final act, Rachel’s love interest, Trevor, visits the cabin to check up on her and stays the night when Diana tells him that Rachel ran away. Trevor is an aspiring reporter, so he wants to investigate. His “reporter’s brain,” as Rachel says many times, is always “overflowing with questions,” as if aspiring journalists are some sort of exotic animal whose brain patterns are fundamentally different from those of normal humans.
Rachel, still trapped in a cage, assumes that Diana will murder Trevor, so she talks to a taxidermied bear (Rachel can talk to animals), breaks out of her cage and runs to wake Trevor and tell him they both need to leave immediately without giving any explanation.
And, as they run for their lives Trevor says what is arguably the worst line of dialogue in the novel: “Well, when a beautiful woman shows up in my bedroom in the middle of the night carrying a rifle, I figure the smartest thing is to do what she says.”
Even though I’m certain I lost a few brain cells reading that line, at least I got a good laugh out of it. The clumsy attempt at humor is emblematic of a larger trend in the novel: Why does any of this even happen? Why does Rachel talk to animals? Why would she hide from her sister? Why would Trevor drop a horny one-liner at such a terrible time? Are these just Dionne’s misguided efforts to inject artificial drama into her story?
Descriptions of Rachel’s psychiatric treatment would certainly seem to suggest so. “Growing up in a mental hospital is every bit as ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ as it sounds … locked rooms, leather restraints, electroshock therapy, mood-altering drugs,” Dionne writes. The author seems to have an almost cartoonish understanding of mental hospitals. I cannot imagine descriptions so pulpy could be anything other than a wayward attempt to make Rachel’s story more tragic.
But I probably shouldn’t be so harsh on “The Wicked Sister.” Trevor’s merely one of the worst offenders in a pattern of under-developed characters, and though the aforementioned incidents break any sense of immersion built up, I can’t say I wanted to stop reading.
In spite of its faults, Karen Dionne’s “The Wicked Sister” remains engaging, even fun at times, and is a pleasant evening distraction. God knows, in this day and age, we all need to be distracted every once in a while.