Finding a light beach read this summer should be as easy as A-B-C. Look no further than THE ALPHABET SISTERS, a frothy family saga from Australian novelist Monica McInerney.
McInerney has spun a tale centering on three sisters --- Anna, Bett and Carrie Quinlan (get it? A, B, C) --- who spent a good deal of their girlhoods touring across Australia as "The Alphabet Sisters," a kind of low-rent version of the Osmonds minus the Mormonism and enormous teeth.
Cooked up by their flamboyant grandmother, Lola, as a scheme to give the girls something to do, "The Alphabet Sisters" not only broke up, but the sisters entangled themselves in such a fervent feud that none of them are even on speaking terms.
Contrary to the old song, there was a mister who came between these sisters. Enter Bett's fiancé, Matthew, who finds himself hopelessly in love with sister Carrie, triggering the feud, which had, in all honesty, been brewing for years. Something about unflattering costumes and Yoko Ono (okay, I made up that part about Yoko Ono. I just think it might be wise to work her in somewhere when the story has to do with the breakup of a band.)
The jilted Bett flees to London, Anna becomes a none-too-famous actress in Sydney, and Carrie settles down in their hometown. Awkwardness ensues.
The girls agree to put aside their differences and return to their hometown to help plan the celebration of Lola's 80th birthday. More than just a little meddling and more than slightly pickled, Lola envisions the party as a way to reunite her family. The girls agree to put aside their petty differences. Well, they're really not so petty, are they? Stealing and marrying your sister's fiancé has got to be right up there when you think of unpetty differences.
Regardless, the girls, now grown women, come back and somehow pull it together for the party. All of a sudden, Lola announces that she also wants them to help produce her "life's work," a musical about (I'm not making this up) General Douglas MacArthur and his "I shall return" speech. I guess musicals about megalomaniacs are very popular in South Australia these days.
Once the girls get going on casting, directing, and starring in the musical, the story starts to chug along. Until then, however, it's a bit clunky and mired in Bett's ruminations about the feud. Poor Bett, the self-described chunky sister, seems unnaturally thin-skinned with a sense of egoism usually reserved for seventh-grade girls. The adult Bett says, "I'm scared of loads of things…I'm scared of seeing my body in mirrors in changing rooms in clothes shops, and snooty shop assistants making fun of me. I'm scared of stupid things too. Like eating oysters. Reverse parking. Airplanes. Mobile phones." Bett, honey? Mobile phones? But I do get a kick out of the Australian dialogue.
Carrie and Anna each also have their trials, and McInerney wisely steers clear of letting either slip into caricature. It is their characterization that allows THE ALPHABET SISTERS to stay just far above the "Chick Lit" bar. That, and the quaint small town setting of the Clare Valley.
McInerney herself grew up in the Clare Valley of South Australia, and although she now lives in Dublin, she clearly remains fond of the area, located close to Adelaide. She fondly creates a cast of small-town characters who, while not idyllic, are certainly memorable and quite lovely.
McInerney throws in a death close to the end, which seems more a way to tug at heartstrings than any plot device. But even with that included, if you like happy endings, you'll be all over this one.
Even though it's winter in Australia, it's summer here in the States and a perfect time for a swing in the hammock and a sweet read like THE ALPHABET SISTERS.
Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran on January 7, 2011
The Alphabet Sisters