One quote that precedes Vicki Lane’s latest novel suggests the book’s subtle theme: “A Sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves — a special kind of double,” Toni Morrison says.
The two sisters who shape this story couldn’t be more different. Elizabeth Goodweather is a sensible, hard-working woman who operates an herb business from her Appalachian farm. By contrast, her sister, Gloria, is a city girl, a “ditz in high heels, a poster child for conspicuous consumption.”
Claiming that her husband (her fourth) wants to murder her, Gloria flees her Florida home and charges into Elizabeth’s life seeking sanctuary. The timing couldn’t be worse. Elizabeth is balancing the demands of her farm with those of her upcoming wedding to Phillip Hawkins. And even under the best circumstances, she and Gloria have a prickly relationship.
Gloria swans around the Appalachian farmhouse in full makeup and negligee, complaining about the “primitive” conditions (no dishwasher or cable TV). Acknowledging that Gloria brings out her “whiny inner child,” Elizabeth grits her teeth and tries to sympathize with her sister, but she wonders if the murder plot is just a way to gain attention. Meanwhile, Elizabeth wrestles with her nagging doubts about Phillip’s past and his connection to her late husband.
Overall, the question is whether people are whom they seem to be. The answer unspools in surprising ways. Gloria reveals unpredictable virtues of generosity and courage, and Elizabeth discovers her own inner sybarite. A parallel story, set in the late 1880s, tells of two other sisters who produce séances to fleece innocent people in the mountain resort of Hot Springs. The two story lines intersect when the modern-day sisters attend a seminar at that same resort.
Lane’s brisk narrative draws the reader along, and she provides vivid details of mountain farm life. (Lane lives and works on her own small farm in Marshall County.) Best of all, her character development gives rich layering to this tale of different sisters — who are, in the end, sisters under the skin.
Bantam Books. 2011, 407 pages, paperback, $15.