My Sister Life by Maria Flook is number one on my list in my 20 Books of Summer challenge, inspired by Cathy at 746 Books. I’ve been avoiding this one for a few reasons. One, it has a depressing subject matter: It’s a memoir about how the author’s sister’s disappearance as a young teenager. Two, it was a little unclear from the cover copy what kind of book it was, since it seemed that the sister’s story would also be told. I wasn’t sure if it was a true memoir or a fiction hybrid, which gave me an off-feeling about it. And Three, a shallow reason to not read something: I’ve been avoiding Amazon by getting used books through Powell’s, and this was a particularly yellowing and unattractive book. A fancy design conceit where there was a hole in the front cover to indicate the sister’s absence looked vandalized and disturbing.
But how wrong I was to hesitate! This book was enthralling from the get-go, when, in chapter two, I realized that this would be a bad-mother memoir. In her first scene, the mother is getting dressed for a cocktail party, trekking “back and forth from her bureau to the closet dressed only in her strapless bra and panties.” She applies her “French Jean Patou perfume, pinching the rubber bulb of a cut-crystal atomizer. Next, she stooped before the full-length mirror to adjust her seamed stockings,” which she does “with insulated palms” wearing her short, white-cotton gloves for church. These details add up, gorgeously, until Flook explains that:
“Families take pride in their piety or in their prosperity, rejoicing in a father-and-son business venture, in a gifted child’s scholarship or in a prized commission in the military. But in our household Veronica’s enterprising sexuality overwhelmed our individual goals and spilled into family matters. Her erotic aspect emerged in her every routine and came more naturally to her than maternal duty.”
Flook’s thesis is simple but powerful. This cold, narcissistic woman did not provide love to her daughters and prevented their spineless father from doing so, either. The oldest sister, Karen, became promiscuous and ran away at age fourteen, to become a child prostitute. She lived in a trailer park with an abusive older ‘boyfriend’ named James and his other girlfriend, a woman named Ruth, who also ran a whorehouse where Karen soon started working. Amazingly, Karen preferred life with Ruth and James to the one at home with her well-off but frigid and mentally abusive parents. She left the world of luxury cruises and European vacations for the trailer park and prostitution without regret. Pitifully, she responds to Ruth and James’s affection and interest in her. James helps her steal a winter coat. They go out for ice cream and let her keep some of her earnings from prostitution. It’s extremely sad, but in Flook’s hands feels psychologically plausible.
Maria, the youngest child, also became a juvenile delinquent though a slightly more functional one. Her sister’s disappearance and the years where the family didn’t know if Karen was alive or dead turned Maria into a writer. She becomes morbid and obsessed with accidents and death, which she describes as “just keeping my eyes open.”
The book is powerfully written, full of subtle, sneaky metaphors for loss, and startling images that the writer uses to try to understand her experience.In one place she writes:
When one child goes missing, the remaining child is left untethered. I have seen a dog pull free of its collar and in its sudden freedom shudder, as if any connection it had had to the world remained in the coil of leather.
In another passage she recalls a childhood moment with Karen (as she does frequently) when little Maria has half-blinded herself with chlorine and her sister gives her a lollipop.
“I stared at the sucker” she writes. “Its glassy red bauble twinkled, exaggerated in my half-blind state. The candy warped the light with a kaleidoscope effect and it was just too beautiful to eat. ‘Aren’t you going to taste that?’ Karen asked me. Karen’s eyes weren’t blurred by the chlorine and she didn’t see the miraculous gift she had given me.”
Karen’s loss is a curse but it endows Maria with unusual powers.
I’ve written recently about terrible-stories-about-girls books, and how they unsatisfyingly present the drugs, promiscuity, abortions, etc., without seeming to delve into why. Flook delves. She may lay too much blame on her parents—the section where she explains that her mother bought her a pony to get her to spend more time away from home feels a little self-serving. But at least she’s looking for answers, making a powerful and articulate case for how she understands the forces that formed herself and her sister.
The second half of the book when Karen reappears and the sisters have some opportunities to be reunited but never really reconnect was less satisfying, especially since it brought up the same questions that made me hesitate over reading My Sister Life in the first place. How much of Maria’s startlingly clear retelling of Karen’s experiences is real? Karen doesn’t seem like she’d trust her sister enough to entrust such detailed recollections. One of the most unusual aspects of the book is that it does delve into the details and emotions of Karen’s experience as a child prostitute so tenderly—Flook is retelling from a distance, and she doesn’t have the flatness of affect, anger, or defensiveness that often clouds such material when the author has been through it. The central question that kept me reading became How does she know? How did Flook and her sister heal the breach between them well enough to create this book? Frustratingly, that question was not answered.