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Sisters Mass Market Paperback – December 1, 1981
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I have to say that, even before I started reading this book, my mind was a vipers' tangle of prejudices about it. I expected it to be horrible. And then I started reading it, and it was slow, but really not as awful as I'd thought. And then, then... then came the last chapter.
Sisters may have been marketed as genre romance--at least, that's how I've always heard it described--but it doesn't really read that way. It's got that scent of general-literary-fiction about it, the sort of ungenrifiable feel that draws on a number of things, but isn't well-written enough to wear the literary-fiction tag well. It's definitely genre fiction, though whether that genre is romance or mystery is probably up to the reader to decide; Cheney is not nearly as gifted as, say, Barbara Michaels when it comes to mixing the two. More accurate to say that it borrows a few conventions from the romance genre and a few from the mystery genre, without having enough of either to make a claim. It's not ungenrifiable, in other words, because it resists categorization, but because it doesn't know what it wants to be (as opposed to, in the work of someone like Joyce Carol Oates, being aggressive about not caring).
Since there are a somewhat unsurprising number of reviews here from people who have obviously not read the novel and don't care to ever try, I'll spin the synopsis for you: Sophie Dymond, a successful magazine editor from New York City, travels to Cheyenne in the latter part of the nineteenth century to attend her dying grandfather Joe. While she's there, she gets caught up in investigating the year-old death of her sister Helen, with which she has never come to terms, and becomes increasingly convinced that Helen's fall down the stairs was not an accident. Meanwhile, she finds herself attracted to Helen's widower husband, James, a wealthy cattle baron. This gets her involved with the politics of big business, nineteenth-century style, and cattle rustling. All of it comes together in the end, though in a tangled mess rather than a neat package.
You'll notice that nowhere in that synopsis is the word "lesbian." This is by design. The "lesbian fiction" tag so often applied to this novel in the last few years is a misnomer at best; there is an undercurrent of lesbianism running through some of the novel's minor characters, but those looking for a cheap thrill (or, as one of the few reviewers who's actually read it puts it, some evidence that "beneath Ms. Cheney's political stances lurk[s] a more liberal...soul") certainly won't find it here. This is "romance" in the Danielle Steel tradition--Victorian in its attitudes toward sex (between any combination of sexes).
This might have been even slightly disappointing had there been a single character well-developed enough to care about. There aren't. Cheney puts character aside for plot at every turn. As a result, the bulk of the book is at least marginally readable, if you don't much care about characters; Cheney's writing is at least borderline competent, enough so to keep the pages turning simply to find out what happens next. (By "borderline competent" here, I'm lumping her into the same category as, say, Dan Brown; there's nothing to distinguish it, but there's no obvious reason that the writing style itself is horrible. The badness creeps in because of the meaning the writing conveys.)
But then, as I intimated above, comes the books painful, grueling, unbearable final chapter. Were I of the type to be easily, or even not-so-easily, offended, I'd have tried to round up every copy of this book I could find and burn it, the last chapter is so awful. (And considering the prices this book goes for these days, that's saying something.) This shows every indication of being the chapter that got tacked on because Cheney had no earthly idea how she was going to end this book. Every character who's involved has a complete change of heart (and behavior), and they all do so abruptly in a chapter that, for this book, is almost curt. It's a chapter that screams, "I'm tired of these characters, and I want to be done with them." Needless to say, this is not the attitude of an author who gives a tenth of a whit about the characters. Even if the rest of the book had been brilliant, had been Pulitzer material, the last chapter would have been enough to cut its rating, at least, in half. And Sisters is not Pulitzer material.
I'm not sure I could recommend this at the cover price we paid for paperbacks in 1981; I certainly can't imagine paying a hundred times that price, or more, on the collector's market these days (and that's a conservative estimate). *
Heavens! For many of us, what Mrs. Cheney considers sub-par work comprises ripping-good entertainment. And how are we to decide whether "Sisters" is her "best work" if virtually no copies exist--and those that do exist cost hundreds of dollars? Her attorney felt that if a need existed for "Sisters," that the nation's rare-book dealers would satisfy that need.
Well, only if the reader has a great deal of money, as well as the persistence to seek out the few copies on the free market.
To rephrase a current-day expression, some sisters are not only doing it for themselves, they are doing for others. Mrs. Biscuitbarrel owns one of the yellowing vintage copies of "Sisters," and so she lovingly hand-typed all twenty-three action-packed chapters into blog format, available free of charge at [...] Read the book, and then come back here and post a review!
Incest, cattle rustling, lynching, the chaste female-female love that dares not speak its name, dognapping, running away from a convent school to join the circus, the New York-Washington publishing scene, women's suffrage, a runaway mother, the mysterious death of a sister, circus freak shows, troubled nieces, a hunky widowed Scottish brother-in-law (rrrrufffff!), contraception, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the frequent introduction of gophers--either merely dead, or dead and putrefying--spice the never-a-dull-moment plot of "Sisters."
My only caveat goes out to prurient thrill-seekers: The word "lesbian" does not appear anywhere in this novel.
Seriously dear readers, this book is hard to find and I'm not sure if the author wants money from this book. But it's available to a simple search. Get cracking.