The Almost Sisters - a novel
Joshilyn Jackson (2017, William Morrow)
Leia Birch Briggs had the nerdy childhood betokened by her first name, though her father had died before finding out which Star Wars baby his wife was bearing. She spent her childhood summers in Birchville, a small town in Alabama which her father's family had founded, named, and still largely owned. Her grandmother still lives, with a companion, in the family's stately home, overlooking the comings and goings in the town square.
Leia's childhood reading comic books and running around Birchville dressed as Wonder Woman led to a career in drawing comics, including a well-received graphic novel called Violence in Violet. The super-heroic Violence is Violet's protector; but is she also her lover, her sister, or her alter ego? Leia has contracted to write a prequel volume, so it might be high time to figure that out.
She has a nice life, and makes a decent living. She's also a significant enough celebrity on the Fan Convention circuit to drink with an admirer dressed as Batman, and sleep with him. When she turns up pregnant, she's forgotten his name and lost his number, recalling only that he was tall, Black, and handsome. While she's deciding how to tell her mother, step-father, and step-sister, she's called down to Birchville. Her grandmother's dementia has suddenly announced itself at the church fish-fry with some unexpected truth-telling. Lewy's body dementia has made Miss Birchie unduly frank about sexual matters, since she sees imaginary rabbits in the background busily making more rabbits.
Her bosom friend, Miss Wattie, has kept this under wraps by being constantly at Birchie's side, nursing her and whispering calm into her ear. Wattie and Birchie go back almost ninety years; they were raised together in the Birch household by Wattie's mother, the housekeeper, after Birchie's mother died in childbirth. They are the only people in town who cross the color line to go to church together, whether at Wattie's Black Baptist church or the White one in the center of town.
Leia starts making plans to move the two of them closer to her in Virginia. Her step-sister Rachel pitches in with research and overbearing advice, as is her practice. "As an adult, she'd helped me choose everything from cars to Christmas trees to lip gloss. ...Her genuinely good intentions coupled with her self-assured rightness made the helping both exasperating and impossible to turn down." She lends Leia her adolescent daughter, Lavender, as a travel companion. Ostensibly, Lavender is there to help organize the situation in Alabama, but she's also being sent out of the way of the cracks that have suddenly appeared in Rachel's perfect life.
Joshilyn Jackson makes neat use of the generational divides she has set up. The old ladies came up in a town recognizable from To Kill a Mockingbird, where you know people based on what their families are like. In the present, the dominant grapevine for adults is the church phone tree, while Lavender lives on the Internet, scheming with her new friends who live down the street in Birchville.
Jackson also has a wonderfully tender way with the step-sisters' relationship. Leia and Rachel are different in many ways, down to their differing memories of their shared childhood. We hear about Rachel's perfectionism and meddling from Leia's point of view, but when she gets a glimpse of what it's like to think she can solve everybody's problems, she rather likes it, too.
Wattie and Birchie, for all their fragility, are fierce and strong, especially on each other's behalf. Jackson knows the rhythm and the logic of dementia; Birchie makes perfect sense, sometimes, but you can't always tell when those times are, or what she might still be concealing. Their essential kinship gives Leia reason to hope that her biracial baby represents a new world, as well as a very old one.
The Almost Sisters is full of the joy of sisterhood, step-, foster-, and otherwise; the rich tastes and sustaining nature of Southern food; and the power of rage, in its own good time.
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