Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Orphan Sister

By Gwendolen Gross
New York, Gallery Books, 2011
283 pages     Fiction
Each of us feels inferior in some way or other. We can blame it on family position, family dynamics, genetics, or any number of other reasons. Clementine, in the book The Orphan Sister by Gwendolen Gross, feels inferior to her twin sisters. She is a triplet but is the product of two eggs—the twins in one and she in another. She is a fraternal rather than an identical triplet. Rather than feeling the independence that could come from being fraternal rather than identical, she feels lost and out of touch—no matter what anyone in the family does to try to include her. She is constantly seeking affirmation.

Clementine is the narrator of The Orphan Sister. She is an extremely self-absorbed, needy woman—almost to the point of being unlikeable. She accepts the love of her family and flings it back in their faces. She rejects her family’s support even as she accepts it. She is nearly 30-years-old and still searching for herself; she allows the grief from the death of a boyfriend six or eight years in the past to keep her from loving Eli, the man who loves her unconditionally. She is unable to move forward.

At one point, one of her sisters says: “Clem, I’ve always been jealous, you know, because you get to be special, you get to be just you and not one of the pair.” Although this might have served as a revelation for Clementine, she is very slow to learn that she is valuable.

There are family secrets in every family and in Clementine’s family there is a big one. Their father, who is absent about half the time, has another family—a wife and daughter. The girls know nothing of this other family until they are about thirty and the twins are both doctors and expecting their first babies.   They feel angry and betrayed, and their anger fuels much of the plot. Indeed, the revelation changes the family dynamics in very dramatic ways, and all the main characters are in flux.

As a protagonist, Clementine is undeserving of all the attention that we have to pay her. I didn’t like her and couldn’t relate to her. I also felt that the big drama over the other family, while interesting, was predictable. It is a relief when we arrive at some closure; the father introduces the daughter from his other family; the friend, Eli, becomes the lover; and Clementine arrives at some peace. She says, “And that was the end of the wallowing—if not the end of sorrow.” And by that point, I just didn’t care.

I did have a great conversation with my granddaughters (10-year-old twins) about the nature of twin-hood. What they liked; what they didn’t like. I was surprised to hear that they were mature enough to realize that the best thing about being twins was that they always had someone to play with, to talk to, and to fight with. I asked them if they were intuitive about each other, and they said that they could read each other’s faces enough to know what the other was thinking. I asked them if one got jealous of the other, and they indicated that yes, indeed they did. It was enlightening to hear them talk.

I am not sure that I can recommend this book to my readers. I can agree with the Kirkus reviewer who says: “At its best, the novel delves into the sister relationships, but the triplet hook only goes so far to mitigate the annoying entitlement of the characters and the heavy-handed if familiar plot.

I felt that Julia Glass handled the complexities of sister relationships better in I See You Everywhere than Gross did in The Orphan Sister. There was none of the whining that I found so annoying in The Orphan Sister. You can find my review of I See You Everywhere here: Interestingly enough, the protagonist in I See You Everywhere is also named Clementine.

I read The Orphan Sister at the behest of the publicist.
The book’s website:
Gwendolen Gross’s website:

1 comment:

Ceska said...

Gwendolen Gross's writing is exquisite. There is no other word to describe the way she creates her story. There were so many times I would read a sentence, a paragraph or a phrase and I'd go back over it, and see the image so clearly in my mind. Her writing is fluid and solid, and just that precise. Her story-telling is beautiful, and you'll fall in love with Clementine, with her story, with the people who love her, and know that in the end, she will have had a good life and that she was once very real, and very loved, and that she was more than just The Orphan Sister.