Sisters One, Two, Three, by Nancy Star

When I was in high school my mother started irritating me. It was just the small things, plus a mix of hormones and the stuff that happens when you’ve had daily exposure to someone for sixteen years. The odd thing is that I rarely had sympathy from my friends. “Your mom’s great,” they’d tell me. “She’s really funny.” If nothing else this proved to me that what happens within a family and how it looks from the outside can be completely different. Especially if there are secrets within the family.

This book runs along two different tracks with two generations of mothers. It opens with the conflicts between Ginger, a school nurse who tends toward anxiety, and her daughter Julia. There’s regular tension between mother and daughter, with a father who tries to avoid being in the conflict. In the first chapter one of the many small conflicts involves the revelation that Ginger has more than one sibling, something never disclosed to Julia until it comes out by accident.

The story then begins to move between the present tense and the story of Ginger’s childhood. Her parents are Sully and Gloria. She also has two sisters and a brother. Mimi, the sister with whom Ginger is still in contact, Callie, who disappeared and reportedly joined a cult, and brother Charlie who died in an accident. Sully is a toy wholesaler. Gloria nearly has multiple personalities, with one face for the family and another for public situations. She’s a frustrated actress and singer who acts in local productions but feels she had a career taken from her when she married.

The two parts of the story alternate as Ginger worries about Julia’s new boyfriend Nick and as she remembers her childhood and an event that permanently changed her childhood family. It isn’t until Gloria dies after suffering from dementia that another secret about the family is revealed to Ginger and Mimi.

It’s an intriguing family drama, one that almost reads like a mystery story. Gloria is shown as both a woman who can easily manipulate others and yet somewhere inside she has a better understanding of her children than even they realize. Meanwhile Ginger faces losing her daughter or changing her parenting style completely. Each character is extremely well drawn, even down to speech patterns, making it an especially interesting novel with a strong narrative and plot that make it especially book club-worthy.