The Secret Sisters by Joni Rodgers (author of the popular memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair) is a triple-starred special on the Ladies Book Club scorecard sheet. The slick women-feeling-good-about-women marketing, however, doesn’t hide the fact that The Secret Sisters is a rough gem of a narrative that puts Rodgers’ latest ahead of the bulk of the genre, if only by a nose.
Pia, a successful businesswoman with a happy marriage and two sons headed to Harvard, seems quite literally to have it all, until her husband drops dead at a fund-raising event in downtown Houston on New Year’s Eve. All the while, Pia’s younger sister Lily sits in prison while her own marriage disintegrates, paying for the crime of accidentally killing her 5-year-old niece, Easter, in a drunk-driving incident. And finally there’s Beth, Easter’s mother and wife to Pia and Lily’s brother. Not only does Beth struggle under her crippling interpretation of Christianity, she also refuses to confront her own failures as mother, wife and sister-in-law.
Spanning the course of almost six years, the narrative represents a tapestry of voices belonging to the three female heroines. Each woman labors within a private prison that can be both actual and emotional; each woman has to find the one trick that will grant her freedom. For Pia, a second marriage to a high-powered congressional candidate is her first step, but soon she suffers from depression and agoraphobia. Finally, she finds salvation frequenting an antiques shop where the proprietor sells Turkish ottomans and finely made sex toys for women. Lily, whose story is told in a series of journal entries, hopes the parole board will recognize her good behavior. And Beth catalogs her days in broad failures and successes (“This is not a good day for Beth. And it is about to get worse.” Or “This is a good day for Beth.”); eventually, she hopes, something will break, allowing her to forgive Lily and embrace a happiness she once thought possible
. While Rodgers attempts a complex narrative structure centered on three voices linked by a single theme, her three sections are unbalanced and, ultimately, never satisfactorily fused. At their center is Pia’s story. Bold and ambitious, the character convincingly does about three 180s through the course of the plot before finally coming to rest in the best possible conclusion. In terms of book-club elements, Pia’s tale has it all: death, danger, sexual discovery and resurrection.
In contrast, both Lily and Beth delve too deeply into the land of trite reflection. Dirty-mouthed and loud, Lily’s voice (perhaps the closest to Rodgers’ own, as illustrated in Bald in the Land of Big Hair) comes across most clearly, yet her journal entries succumb to a repetitive chant of her misery in prison and her reading list, which comes across as a thinly veiled recitation of the books Rodgers herself has probably read in the last decade. Ultimately, Lily has to come to terms with the accident that landed her in prison and Rodgers is stuck with the task of stretching that particular epiphany over 350 pages. When Lily finally gets there, the climax is stale. Her prison guard-turned-boyfriend beams at her, saying “in an odd, choked voice, ‘You’re free!’”
Similarly, Rodgers had a difficult time stretching Beth’s story to its fullest capacity. Generally unexplored and buttressed by Christian stereotypes, Beth has little to contribute and little evolution. She is most dynamic as the figure appearing at Lily’s parole hearings, lying about forgiveness and muttering to herself about Lily’s foul mouth and unchurched boyfriend. In the end, Beth’s turnaround is as underwritten by the author as it is forgotten by readers.
The Secret Sisters is likely to will a book-club audience of warm-blooded, intelligent women who want a heartwarming story. But to the detriment of her own novel, Rodgers panders to that audience threefold. In The Secret Sisters, however, we also see the beginnings of a writer hampered by her readership. More than in her earlier novels, Rodgers here starts to test her limits. Though incompletely so, her latest book is more penetrating and more honest than its sisters.
Joni Rodgers appears at Fact & Fiction to read from and sign copies of The Secret Sisters Thursday, April 13, at 7 PM.