Review

The Story Sisters

by Alice Hoffman

Though many fairy tales have been watered down over the
generations --- their first, darker versions altered to make them
brighter and happier --- you can still find the originals preserved
in collections by the Grimm Brothers and others. Modern
storytellers often use fairy tale conventions to tell their own
tales, especially if a certain kind of danger or fearful innocence
exists in the story. Fairy tale figures, evil forces, beautiful
children, strong heroes, enchanted lands and mystical creatures are
used to express a fractured reality, a broken mind, a damaged
heart, or simply an alternate way of viewing the world.

In her latest novel, the prolific Alice Hoffman plays with the
idea of a twisted fairy tale as a trio of sisters, in their
imaginations and in reality, try to come to terms with tragedy,
pain and deep secrets. In THE STORY SISTERS, Elv, Meg and Claire
seek out love and acceptance, power and invisibility and, finally,
peace and redemption.

The Story sisters were beautiful and smart. Elv was the oldest;
strong and daring, she was known as the beauty of the three, but
was also unstable, unpredictable and moody. Meg, the serious middle
sister and a quiet bookworm, was growing into the kind of powerful
beauty her older sister possessed. At 12, Claire was warm and
caring, quick to please but wracked with a guilt that leaves her
emotionally beholden to Elv. It all goes back to a secret Elv and
Claire share of the trauma Elv suffered when she foiled a
pedophile’s plans to abduct Claire. Elv was taken instead and
was hurt and abused in ways she could never express, instead
turning inward and creating a secret and magical landscape for her
and her sisters to live in. The secret world was called Arnelle and
its language Arnish. Within its fairy tale borders, Elv tried to
keep herself and her sisters safe from further harm.

But Arnelle was not real enough, and as she grew older, Elv
became more and more self-destructive until she found chemical ways
to alter her reality and try to leave her pain behind. Often
estranged from her family, she was unable to care for her younger
sisters, who both fear her and fear for her. Over the years the
girls move between their New York home and their familial home in
Paris (populated by two fairy godmother-like women). Longing for
understanding, comfort and magic, they draw people into their lives
who are both harmful and healing. In THE STORY SISTERS, Hoffman
re-imagines the familiar fairy tale narrative in a modern
coming-of-age story. The princes, supernatural experiences and
magical animals remain, but present too are drugs, teenage sex, car
crashes and depression.

Hoffman’s prose is lovely, often finding the rhythms and
cadences of traditional fairy tales and storytelling. The girls are
compelling characters, and readers will surely feel for them as
they grow up with so much hurt and so much promise. As Elv has a
more difficult time coping, Arnelle becomes darker and scarier, and
finally she inhabits it alone as her sisters abandon her to the
place. Her downward trajectory is brutal and yet interestingly
written. Some of the characters, however, are not fleshed out
enough. As in so many fairy tales, the girls’ parents remain
almost non-entities (especially their father), and while the
emotional isolation adds to the story, it doesn’t lend it a
realistic feel. Hoffman heaps tragedy upon tragedy on the girls,
and by the end it is exhausting and somewhat unfulfilling: readers
may have a hard time dealing with the sheer amount of loss, death,
destruction and violence present in the story. Happy endings here,
like in those sinister fairy tales of old, are relative.

THE STORY SISTERS, reminiscent of traditional tales both
cautionary and entertaining, is a gloomy and romantic book perfect,
despite its often oppressive darkness, for stormy and gloomy summer
nights.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011

The Story Sisters
by Alice Hoffman

  • Publication Date: June 1, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway
  • ISBN-10: 0307405966
  • ISBN-13: 9780307405968