THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A cryptic saga of sisters, twisted by a heinous crime

Alice Hoffman Alice Hoffman (Andrew Harrer)
By Roberta Silman
Globe Correspondent / June 28, 2009
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THE STORY SISTERS
By Alice Hoffman
Shaye Areheart, 325 pp., $25

As the eldest of three sisters, I am always interested in books about sisters, like this new novel from Alice Hoffman. Moreover, one of my favorite books is her “Illumination Night,’’ which amply displays her gifts of precise prose and the ability to create sympathetic characters. I especially remember its evocation of the awful condition we call agoraphobia, as it was suffered and mostly conquered by Vonny. In this book, Hoffman seemed to be discovering the world as she wrote.

But this new novel lacks the spark of the earlier work. Its vision, characters, and even the prose seem tired. Too much of it is told rather than shown, and the story itself is a strange combination of a coming-of-age novel set on Long Island and a brutal story of the consequences of a childhood trauma that leads into a fateful descent into drugs for the main character, Elv, the eldest sister. Elv’s courageous rescue of her younger sister, Claire, from a pedophile and what happened to Elv become the secret that is the linchpin of the book. To escape that horror, Elv creates an imaginary world, Arnelle, and the three girls, Elv and Claire, and their middle sister, Meg, retreat to it, excluding their mother, Annie, who is divorced from their “nitwit’’ father, Alan. This parallel world, with its own language and rituals, becomes the excuse for outrageous behavior as the girls become teenagers.

We are told that Annie could identify which of them had entered a room, “distinguishing them by their scents. Claire smelled like vanilla, Meg like apples. Elv’s skin gave off the scent of burning leaves.’’

Yet Annie is incredibly passive and doesn’t seem to have any of the normal anxiety of a mother in a time and place where hormones are raging, drugs are rife, and dangers abound. Not even their supposedly sophisticated grandmother, Natalia, seems able to act. The girls visit her frequently in Manhattan and Paris, and although she knows Elv is a bully and a thief and, maybe, a nymphomaniac, all we are told is that “Natalia felt afraid for the child. Her friend Leah Cohen had told her that demons preyed upon young girls.’’

Only after the teenager who has been stalking Elv hangs himself does Annie wake up, and the entire family (including Alan) goes for a picnic in the country that ends up with Elv being left at a school for disturbed teenagers in New Hampshire. Elv then begins a descent into drug addiction, which leads to more violence and death. This section is described with real skill and precision, and my heart lifted as I began to feel some empathy for this eldest child who has caused such pain, and then goes missing.

But in this case the author doesn’t deliver. Although we are given details of Elv’s life as a runaway, it feels almost as if Hoffman could not dig deep into that story. Instead, Part Two shifts to Annie, who is helped in her search for her daughter by a detective. In the process he and Annie fall in love, but neither the love story nor Annie come alive. And when he finds Elv, it is too late. This heavily plotted part of the book becomes more predictable, yet also more unconvincing. Although Elv is clearly aware of what she has done, there is no resolution between her and Annie, and without that payoff this novel seems to fall short. I must admit annoyance bordering on anger when Elv muses:

“Maybe some love was guaranteed. Maybe it fit inside you and around you like skin and bones. This is what she remembered and always would: the sisters who sat with her in the garden, the grandmother who stitched her a dress the color of the sky, the man who spied her in the grass and loved her beyond all measure, the mother who set up a tent in the garden to tell her a story when she was a child, neither good or bad, selfish or strong, only a girl who wanted to hear a familiar voice as the dark fell down, and the moths rose, and the night was sure to come.’’

Nothing is so easy. Neither Hoffman nor her characters seem able to acknowledge the havoc they have created. Only Claire is given a chance to grow, and although Elv does bear a child and reform, she never really matures. Nor do we feel a sense of intimacy with her, the kind of relationship between a main character and a reader that marks a really fine novel.

Admittedly, there are some wonderful passages as the book winds to a close - about the heirloom tomatoes Annie grew in her garden and how Claire learns to design jewelry. But, in the end, “The Story Sisters’’ seems too coy, too contrived. The trips to Paris are always marked by rapture over the chestnut tree in the courtyard of their grandmother’s flat and Berthillon’s ice cream. When repeated so insistently, details like that become meaningless.

Yet Hoffman has a huge reputation and has built a large audience. There may be lots of readers who crave books that have their feet planted both in reality and fairy tale, complete with mysterious passages like those introducing each chapter of this puzzling, and, in the end, unsettling book.

Roberta Silman can be reached at rsilman@verizon.net.

THE STORY SISTERS By Alice Hoffman

Shaye Areheart, 325 pp., $25

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