Author Helen Bryan has hit a home run with her sprawling saga, The Sisterhood. The novel is composed of two intertwined stories, with one story played out against the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century, the other taking place in modern times. The modern story followed Menina Walker, who had been rescued from the sea off the coast of South America, taken to an orphanage run by Catholic nuns, and later adopted by an American family. The older story was the remarkable tale of a remote Spanish monastery that sent several nuns and four young girls on a perilous voyage to the New World, along with a special treasure that had great significance for the monastery. The two stories converged when the now grown-up Menina, her dreams shattered after a broken engagement, fled to Spain to do research for her college thesis. Due to a disastrous series of events after her arrival, she ended up stranded in a crumbling old monastery filled with elderly nuns. She soon learned, however, that her misfortune may have been serendipitous, since the monastery could hold some clues to her own origins. Ultimately, her discoveries threatened to shake the foundations of the Christian church to its core, but may also offer a path to peace between warring religions.
Kudos to the author for writing a marvelous piece of historical fiction, one that seamlessly blended a very compelling story with an authentic historical backdrop of the tumultuous 16th century, when the Inquisition terrorized all in its path. The four young girls the Las Golondrinas monastery sent to the New World would have been burned as heretics had the nuns not sent them away to Spanish America. The Sisterhood was really their story, as they adapted to their strange new home while the nuns searched for husbands for them. More than four centuries later, Menina Walker read their stories in the book she was given by the South American monastery's Abbess when she was adopted, and made the connections to some musty old paintings found in the Spanish monastery.
The Sisterhood was one of those rare novels where I raced to the last chapter, but hated to see the book end. It had great stories, characters I really got to know and care about, and a stunning outcome.
The Sisterhood is about a young woman in the present named Menina who knows nothing about a mysterious chronicle and medal that she inherited from a nun when her parents adopted her. Her search leads her across countries and centuries, spanning the globe and time as she learns the truth about her mysterious possessions and her own identity and reveals a secret that will impact the world. Along the way she experiences and learns about love, betrayal, loyalty, forgiveness, redemption and faith.
While the story was very interesting and in certain parts reminded me a little bit of The Da Vinci Code, the writing style in areas seems a bit unpolished. I found the beginning of the book difficult to get into- I didn't think it was a smooth transition into the real `meat' of the story. There are a lot of little side stories that make up the bulk of the book that can get a bit confusing, taking place in different times and locations. I found the ending rather abrupt and disappointing - after the big `secret' is discovered, they just wrap up the story neatly at the end as if it's not that big of a deal. Too many parts of the story are just difficult to swallow and seem incomplete. I think this could have been written better - made a bit longer and more interesting.
... at least I did. And then I was sad that the story didn't go on.
In 1983, after the worst hurricane that South America has seen in years, a boat is found washed up on shore. Inside is a sunburned toddler, naked except for a small medallion on a chain wound around her neck. The medallion is of a swallow, the symbol of a nearby convent and orphanage. She is brought to the decrepit orphanage that lacks everything but love for the children in their care, The child's story of survival is so miraculous that reporters take her photograph for the worldwide press, but then life goes back to normal.
Until an American couple sees the photo and makes the trek to the way-way-way off the beaten path convent to adopt the child in the photo. They name her Menina, which means lady-in-waiting. Little Menina Walker heads back to the United States with her medallion and an old book embossed with the same swallow as on the medallion, a gift from the convent, with the instructions that she read the book at some time after she turns sixteen. The Walkers head home with their new daughter who is American in every way but her appearance, which is Hispanic to the core.
Menina's story winds back and forth with the story of the Spanish Inquisition and how it affects the nuns contained in the Chronicle, part of the book that she had been given by the nuns when she was adopted. Little does she know that the Chronicle and rest of the book will do more than change her life: it will change the way the world views itself and its Creator forever.
That's enough from me -- I don't want to give away any of the story and spoil it. I did have some complaints - that some of the sub-threads never amounted to anything, and one big huge complaint that is a major spoiler. Enough of a gotcha that I changed the review from five stars (which it deserves for its wonderful and engaging writing) to three (because this is an error of major proportions). If you insist, you can see the spoiler at the end of this review.
Still, I would absolutely recommend reading this book on a day when you have no other obligations: I thought I'd read a chapter or two each day until I finished "The Sisterhood." Hah! I was up until 4:30 am reading, until I had read every word. It helps if you know something about the history of the Inquisition, and the conquering of Moorish Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, who immediately changed it to the very Catholic nation it is today. I found myself remembering some of my catechism and the religious lessons I learned in childhood as well as some European history I learned in college. This book definitely requires a reader who wants to think, not just absorb a story passively. I definitely winced at the violence of the Inquisition and the general behavior of some of the story's men from that time to this. No matter, the story is compelling enough that I was able to deal with the cruelty that is so much a part of this story. Read it. It will bind you into "The Sisterhood" too.
**** Spoiler Below ****
***** Do you really want to spoil some of the story? If so, it's below *****.
Sorry to be the bringer of bad news. I hate having to write things like this spoiler.
SPOILER: Contained in the Chronicle is a gospel of the childhood of Jesus Christ which conflicts with everything taught by mainstream Christianity. The child Jesus is vindictive and sometimes murders or maims those who are cruel to him and their families, enough so that the other kids are afraid of him. He also heals the sick and dying and confuses the Rabbis who are lectured to by a youth who seems to know more about their faith than they do, as is more mainstream. I found it really hard to wrap my head around that one. The real stunner is this: Mary,the ever-virgin mother of God, and the link between Man and God didn't remain a virgin. (Poor St. Joseph is never mentioned) Jesus has a sister. One who looks like Jesus, acts like Jesus and shows a hint of the same power that Jesus has. How did this ever get past the editors!?!?!
Much of the book worries about the reaction of the Catholic Church to a book which makes such claims. Supposedly, the gospel in the book was contemporaneous with the life of Christ, and was originally written down before the Council of Nicea, the 4th century one that proclaimed Mary, the mother of Jesus, Holy and Ever-Virgin, able to intercede for us to Jesus, her son and ONLY CHILD. At one point some people from a shadowy ultra-conservative Catholic organization (Opus Deii??) are chasing after Menina, eager to seize the book and the medallion, which was supposedly created by Jesus to give to his sister. They follow her from the orphanage in South America to the US to Spain and then ... they just disappear. Although they put up many wanted posters for Menina, no one ever seems to tell them where she is. We hear no more about them because the gospel story just happens to be publicized by Menina's childhood friend who just happens to be a crack reporter (at age 22!!??). The New York Times picks up this newly minted but amazingly reputable journalist's story as fact and without any further investigation, they publicize the Chronicle and the new Gospel around the world.
The convent where the Chronicle originated is not questioned or excommunicated or anything by the Catholic authorities. This is a different Catholic Church than the one I have been in my entire life, which would have had some problems with the whole "other gospel." Jesus as a Murderer?! Mary with more than one child? Jesus' little sister starting a religious order which survives to this day?? And not a peep from the Vatican!?!?! No Way. All this is left unanswered and left me feeling more than a little bothered by the whole main premise of the book. Menina and her sweetie are just left to help make the convent into a UNESCO World Heritage Site and museum without even a whisper from Rome?! Perhaps it's because today is the day that Pope Francis I was elected, but I cannot imagine that such a conservative body would take all that information in stride.
Minor nit: All this stuff happens and the Spanish convent is awash in money from selling copies of the Chronicle and medallion and some art that just happens to be waiting for Menina, a brand new Art History student to find. Anyway, the convent is a World Heritage Site and all that but they don't give one dime to their sister convent in South America, which kept the Chronicle safe from the Inquisition and the Church for five hundred years. Not Even a Thank You. That was the place that took care of Menina until she was adopted by the Walkers, and even they forget to send a Euro their way. sheesh. It is minor, but it bugged me after being drained from reading an otherwise amazingly well written story. (My big concerns about the Roman Catholic Church came to me afterward)
on May 20, 2013
I couldn't do it. I tried, and I just couldn't do it. The "it" I'm referring to is finishing this book. I purchased on the positive reviews here, and for several days now, I've labored though and managed to drag myself to the halfway point. This story hasn't any idea what it wants to be. Mystery/intrigue? Romance? Historical fiction? History? Who knows? This confusing read leaves under-developed characters behaving out of their intent (the sudden, gratuitous use of a variety of expletives from a top-of-the-class Southern Baptist strikes me as nearly completely implausible). Menina recognizes no one from an arranged tour, makes her own arrangements to reach Madrid, is dumped into an ancient convent, and NOBODY comes looking for her? Did her name just drop off the list? Also, consider the writing: the author has the police chief handily having lived in the US for 5 years, the refers to social pleasures as "flats", "cinema", and "holidays". Nothing screams authentic American English immersion like British words for "apartments", "movie theaters", and "vacations"! Further, the author continuously switches from present tense to past tense, in the same paragraph. Awkward!
Since I couldn't drag myself to the end, I certainly cannot give out any spoilers. This book was a real disappointment from beginning to middle, with such a promising premise and poor execution in plot, character development, and style.
When she turned sixteen, Menina Walker, heroine of "The Sisterhood," was given a holy medal and a "Chronicle" written in Latin that the nuns at the South American convent presented to her adoptive parents when they arrived to take her home as a little girl. Three years later, while working on her scholarship thesis on artist Tristan Mendoza (who may have personal connections to her legacy) and eager to escape her abusive ex-fiance, Menina travels to Spain where she is derailed by poor weather and perhaps fate. Seeking refuge in a convent, badly in need of repair, Menina decides to evaluate the artwork donated over centuries and see if any is valuable. Through her research, she learns that the convent was once the refuge of five young girls: Esperanza, Marisol, Sanchia, Pia and Isabella, each with an unique story during the time of the Spanish Inquisition (1550's) that will provide Menina with the answers she seeks.
The novel offers a history lesson as well, with the information that nuns not only helped shelter girls in trouble, but served as patrons of the arts, and also influenced the local political scene. It also examines the question: What would happen if someone unearthed evidence that the Virgin Mary wasn't exactly a virgin? The answer is what you'd expect, but it's still an interesting twist. Men, as a whole, do not come off particularly well here, religious and otherwise; with a rape, incest, murder, kidnapping, etc. every fifty pages or so, the drama sometimes becomes melodrama. By contrast, the female characters were appealing, and I wished there were more quiet moments in the novel where I could get to know them better. Also Menina and Becky seemed a little old-fashioned for college students in Y2K, but maybe it's a Southern thing. Overall, I enjoyed the book and its focus on female bonding.
on July 31, 2013
This author has a lot of great ideas for characters. Unfortunately she does not carry through with ANY of them. Their basic stories are that they've had some sort of tragic thing happen to them, they tell their story and now they are either fine, or forgotten.
The main character for this novel is not very well rounded at all. In fact I spent most of my time irritated at the woman and her stupidity. She also makes the fatal mistake of starting out strong and independent and only wanting to do what is best for her into a mewling subservient wife and mother at the end. I'm all for marriage and kids, don't get me wrong, but most people do not make such a drastic change in their personality after doing so. She also tends to think the worst of her own family and friends after they have never given her a reason to.
The historic part of the book about the nuns journey plays an equal role in this book. It was far more interesting and the characters weren't a bunch of whiny selfish brats like the main character. This book should have been written in 3 parts. The beginning story about the sister of Christ, the middle with the nuns and the end with the whiny main character.
Speaking of the beginning sister of Christ story (for which the convent is created for) the author spent less time her story than any of the other stories in the book. This is the woman the convent was created for... shouldn't we really dig into her life and her story? No? Okay. The author also makes Jesus into the bulling jerk who tends to punish people by withering their hands or having a miraculously evil thing happen to them if they are mean to him. Really? Oh and Joseph of Arimathea? Yeah he sells Jesus' sister into prostitution, after taking her captive on his boat. Hmm the man who willingly gave his own tomb for the body of Christ then turns around and sells his sister into prostitution. Yeah that makes so much sense. I mean sure.. where there other Josephs in Arimathea, probably, but you should not bring up the name of such a religious icon that is so recognizable in the death and resurrection story and hope the audience realizes it's probably not the one from the actual Bible.. Or maybe it is.
Whatever. I painstakingly got through this book for my book club. Needless to say, no one in the club enjoyed it or will be reading anything else by this author.
In 1983, a small girl is discovered alone on a boat off the coast of South America in the aftermath of a horrendous hurricane. She is naked but wears a religious medal. Who is she? No one knows. Years pass. It is March of 2000 and she is now nineteen, the cherished adopted child of an American couple who have given her the name Menina Walker. Her first love betrays her in the most brutal and traumatic way imaginable. She escapes by traveling to Spain to do research in art history for a college project. Apparently by chance, she winds up in a convent, where she is amazed to discover clues to her identity.
Menina's story intersects with tales of love and heroism in sixteenth century Spain and the New World. Jews and Muslims are endangered. Brave nuns try to save young girls from the Inquisition and to preserve their own humane spiritual vision--a vision that speak to us today. As the novel moves back and forth in time, one historical period feels as real and absorbing at the other. The author skillfully interweaves the story's two strands, and keeps the reader enthralled.
I first picked up this book planning to read just a few pages. I had to drag myself away 200 pages later, and couldn't wait to get back to it. This is the kind of book you can lose yourself in. There is an intriguing mystery at the heart of it and believable characters with whom it is easy to empathize. Highly recommended.
on June 8, 2013
If one is to write even fiction one should something about which they write. This author knows nothing about the bible, nothing about Inca history, nothing of Spanish history in the Americas, nothing about geography, and nothing about even the central character, the swallow. When I read this I just kept coming across one error after another. I just kept hoping it would STOP ALREADY!
The Sisterhood begins in the year 1552 with an entry written by a nun at the Las Golondrinas Convent in Spain; their convent is about to be visited by the Inquisition Tribunal and fearing for their safety, the sisters are sending a group of orphans to the New World. They will be bringing the written Chronicle detailing the founding of their convent, as well as a religious medal decorated with a small bird, a swallow, a golondrina, with them. The medal and the Chronicle hold great religious significance and must not end up in the wrong hands.
The story then jumps ahead 300 years when, following a devastating hurricane on the coast of South America, a small girl is found alive at sea in a boat wearing the swallow medal. Brought to the local convent, the little girl is soon adopted by an American couple from Georgia. They promise to raise their daughter as a Christian. The nuns give the couple the medal the little girl was wearing and the Chronicle that the convent, also named Las Golondrinas, has had for years.
At this point, the book begins one of many condensed story advancements: the girl is named Menina, she goes to school, she is a very good girl, she is intelligent, she becomes engaged to a jerk. Sixteen years of Menina's life are covered in two pages. The reader begins to finally meet Menina after she impulsively, and apparently out of character, decides to go to Spain to finish her thesis on the artist, Tristan Mendoza.
The story not only has many condensed story advancements, it is also guilty of many coincidences. Menina becomes stranded in a small town in the Andalusias where there happens to be no telephone service and the sole police officer is mysteriously unable to drive Menina to the next town, but he can drive her to the local convent, Las Golondrinas. Decrepit and lacking electricity and hot water, the convent is inhabited by elderly nuns and quite possibly some valuable artwork, maybe even a Tristan Mendoza or two.
Just as the reader is trying to wrap their head around the amount of happenstances Menina has come upon, the book goes back three hundred years to continue the story of the sisters of Las Golondrinas during the Inquisition. A convent founded by a woman known only as the Foundress, Las Golondrinas is a place of safety for abused and fallen women and will take in the bastards of the royals and upper class to hide and protect them. The chapters concerning the characters in this time period are extremely interesting, moving, with much elaboration on the historical background of the Inquisition.
The two stories are interesting in and of themselves, but the writer clumsily intertwines them with coincidence, truncated exposition of multiple characters, with the book written in the third person of Menina as well as the first person narratives of no less than three different nuns on two different continents. It also begins to get ludicrous when an international police "sting" is added to Menina's story. There is also a side story of two strangers hunting for Menina that just disappears without resolve. And some readers have been critical of the true religious meaning of the swallow medal, and the ending that takes place sixteen years following Menina's fortuitous stranding at the convent.
The author's attempts to present a story concerning the strength and perseverance of women living in different eras are commendable. But the transitions could have been smoother, and perhaps a more equitable dedication of the narrative between the timeframes would have helped. Most of the chapters tell the nuns' stories. At one point when the story hops back to Menina, it was jarring and almost a letdown.
Perhaps others will enjoy the book more than I did, but to me, it was clunky and the changes in POV annoying. I did enjoy the history lesson concerning the Inquisition and what people of different religions had to endure. And I do recognize the author's themes concerning the equality of women and of religions, but her storytelling was a bit heavy-handed.
on June 25, 2013
If I weren't completely incapable of dropping a book without finishing it, I'd be blissfully unaware of this disaster. As it is, it took me months to get through it. I don't understand how it has hundreds of 5-star reviews. Did these people actually read the book? It's a great idea and it could have been a fascinating read, but the writing is ATROCIOUS!!! The plot clomps along, characters are vague at best, the ending is a mess... Clearly, no one edited it or proofread it. Do yourself a favor: RESIST the glowing reviews and listen to the 25 of us who hated it.