Alice Hoffman’s sense of the spiritual reality lying hidden inside the natural world has rarely been put to better use than in her creation of Arnish, a language and mythology shared by three sisters surnamed Story, and pitched to exclude their hopeful, fearful mother. In her searing novel The Story Sisters, she uses her lyrical, unflinching prose to peer inside such mysteries of sisterhood and motherhood. As the ties that bind the Story women stretch with rebellion and dissipate with death, Hoffman reveals the pain and possibilities for redemption that are both found in families, though not in equal measure.
The novel opens with a terrifying episode in Central Park, as oldest sister Elv persuades middle child Claire to drive off with a carriage horse that they are certain is being abused. In the ensuing wreck, Elv displays her power to redefine reality through her storytelling prowess, echoing a “bad day” years ago (only described in fleeting allusions) when a trusted adult’s threat to Claire was thwarted by Elv’s substitution of herself. The tale Elv tells herself about that incident convinces her that she isn’t of this world—she’s a fairy child in danger of being held captive by human stratagems of rope, bread, and iron. Unlike Claire and youngest sister Meg, who abandon Arnelle and its epic conflicts when they move into adolescence, Elv slips farther away from the human world, eventually becoming institutionalized. Their mother Alice peers into the sisters’ inexplicable lives from the sidelines, half-convinced her divorce has driven them to unhappy madness and paralyzed in her efforts to rebuild the easy relationships of childhood.
With a sure hand, Hoffman moves between the interior lives of characters who see the world in very different ways: demon-haunted Elv, follower Claire, outsider Meg, powerless Alice, their romantic Parisian grandmother, and silent Pete, the private investigator who works substitute-father magic behind the scenes. Family members have a unique ability to inflict harm on each other, and in the saddest cases, life’s inexorable movements make restitution impossible. Hoffman knows how to portray these tragedies without excess adornment. Yet she believes that unexpected opportunities arise as the generations turn. Although The Story Sisters primarily tracks a downward spiral, the few fragile swings toward reconnection add a transcendent glow to the heartbreak Hoffman chronicles with such meticulous care.