Your chosen books all deal with the theme of sisterhood and sisterly relationships. Tell me a little bit about what this means to you.
I really love books that have sisters in them – there are so many of them – and not just books that have sisters in them, but books where the relationship between sisters is an important focus. I think that often these are also coming-of-age stories because they unfold at the point at which a young person goes out into the world, and their lives are full of potential and change. Sisters, or siblings, at this important crossroads have to establish themselves outside of their relationship to each other. They’ve grown up together and seen themselves as one unit for all their lives, and then there comes this time in young adulthood where they have to break away and work out who they are outside of that relationship. That was certainly a central concern in my book, A Sky Painted Gold.
When I wrote the first draft of my book it suddenly became clear that the moment when Lou’s sister, Alice, gets married is a catalyst for the rest of the story. Up until this point they’ve had an extremely close relationship, almost like twins, and done everything together, but now life is taking them in different directions. When this relationship with her sister begins to fracture or change, in a meaningful way, that opens up so many interesting questions for Lou as a character. It was precisely that distinct, tangible moment of change in her life that made it interesting for me to start with that as a premise.
As a reader I enjoyed the two sisters’ different responses to the same situation. No matter how close their relationship, they are still individuals.
It was really important to me that the book wasn’t making a judgment made about that fact. That they both have different desires, that they both have different paths that they want to take, that they both have their own opinions on things, that both of those attitudes and responses and the choices they lead to are valid, valuable.
It’s also a very useful device for a writer, because you can say so much about a character by focusing on her relationship with her sister. It helps the reader to understand that person so much better because that dynamic is like a glimpse into their past. It gives the reader a sense of a foundation and where the character has come from, and I love that there’s a shared history between the characters that exists completely off the page. It’s great, because you, as a writer, can gesture back towards that quite naturally without having to fill it in completely. It helps a character to come into existence more fully – it gives a sense that they exist before and after the book you’re holding in your hand and I think that’s important.
I think now is a good moment to look at your five book choices. Your first is a classic: Little Women by Louisa M Alcott.
Little Women was my first experience of a book about sisters and one of my favourite books. I read it over and over and over again as a child, because I loved it so much.
Set the scene for us a little bit, for those who don’t know the story?
The book is about a family of four American sisters, living in genteel poverty during the American Civil War. These four sisters are living with their mother, their father is off working as a pastor in the war. Meg and Jo, the older siblings have to work to earn money for the family, while the younger sisters are in school. So they’re living this slightly difficult life, but the focus is less on the difficulties they face and more on their bond as sisters. I just love how playful it is, and, although there is a clear morality to the story, it is managed without being too heavy-handed and didactic, which I really enjoy and I definitely appreciated that as a child – that the book has a lightness to it, that it’s about pranks and games and arguments between sisters in a very real way.
The March sisters have grown up together and I think it’s interesting when you see the tension between the fact that they have a shared upbringing and shared values, and yet they are such obviously different personalities that they can have disagreements. They don’t just agree about everything, and they’re forceful and vocal in their disagreement, but the book is still built upon the strength of the bond between them. I find that interesting, that you can have conflict and love and support all wrapped up in that relationship, and I think it’s really a tender look at the dynamic between the four of them.
Your second choice is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
Like Little Women this is another long-standing book for me. I would say this is the most important book in my life. My niece has just turned thirteen, and I bought her a really nice copy of it for her birthday, because that was the sort of age I was when I first read it and I wanted to pass that experience on to her.
“I would say this is the most important book in my life”
I remember feeling, immediately when reading the book that this was something so different, this was something so special, there was something about it that really spoke to me, and I just loved it. I still love it. Every time I pick it up to read it, I think it’s an absolutely magical book.
The relationship between the sisters, Cassandra and Rose, is such an interesting one. There’s a sense that these two sisters are so different, and at the same time they’ve been isolated by their peculiar and magical upbringing. Even though they are different and they want different things – at the heart of their relationship it is clear that they are the only two people that could understand where they’ve come from, because to anyone else it would just seem too strange.
And that is something we get from our siblings, isn’t it? That when you grow older, no matter how close, or not so close, you are – that sibling is the only person who really knows you. Who has known you from the beginning.
These two characters have this shared history and understand each other from, as you say, from the beginning in a way that other characters who come into the story never could. It adds such rich layers to the storytelling and the dynamics between these two sisters.
And so, in I Capture the Castle, Cassandra understands why Rose makes certain decisions, because she understands where they’ve come from – even if she doesn’t agree with them. And, she understands them in a way that I think other people are slightly baffled by.
It’s a classic coming-of-age story, isn’t it? And these dual views of sisters make for absolutely bewitching storytelling.
In I Capture the Castle these sisters had been living in this insular, claustrophobic bubble for so long – what happens in the moment when that changes? What happens when that world suddenly opens up? What happens when the sisters are separated? What happens when their lives are going in different directions?
We see Cassandra trying to understand herself without Rose, and her struggle is so relatable, so well-explored that it gives the book a vibrancy and an immediacy that I love.
Your third choice is To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
I know that Jenny Han is a huge I Capture the Castle fan and I think you can really see that influence in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The kind of themes that we’ve been talking about in terms of I Capture the Castle are also a focus here. Even the style and the voice of both books hold some really lovely similarities. I Capture the Castle is written in the first person – it’s Cassandra’s journal, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is written in first person present tense, so, they share that sense of intimacy, of communicating with the reader. You feel like you really get to know these characters.
The premise of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is that when Lara Jean has a crush on a boy she writes a letter to him, which she doesn’t post. One day the letters all get posted and she has to deal with the fall out of that. I love that Lara Jean and Cassandra both use writing as a way to work out their feelings.
Tell me what makes this book stand out for you?
I think the thing that makes it stand out for me is I really love the voice and the style of the writing, and I love the romance in it and the way that’s handled. It’s such a strong premise and I think it has that really delicate quality that I look for in a great coming-of-age romance novel.
As for the sister relationship, I really, really loved the sister dynamic in these books. In the series there are three sisters and Lara Jean is the middle sibling. Her older sister Margot is the serious, grown up sibling and her younger sister Kitty is this brilliant funny, feisty, character. Lara Jean’s relationship with her older sister Margot is really important in this book but actually Margot is removed for most of the action. And, again, that is the catalyst for a lot of what happens in the story. Because Margot goes away to school the serious, grown-up sister is gone and suddenly there’s this void that Lara Jean, as the middle child, feels she needs to step in to.
The sisters live with their father but their mother has passed away, so there’s this idea that with Margot absent the family is coping with another – though obviously much lesser – loss and Lara Jean has got to fill in and somehow hold things together. It tells you so much about Margot even when she’s not on the page. And it also tells you a lot about Lara Jean, about how she sees her family and what she thinks her family needs. I really enjoyed that dynamic.
Your fourth choice is One Italian Summer by Keris Stainton.
I read this book only a couple of weeks ago. I went into it expecting a light romance with the sister relationship at its heart. And it is – it certainly had me laughing, but it also had me in floods of tears.
This book begins following the death of the sisters’ dad. Their father dies very suddenly, in his sleep, and so it’s not just the impact of losing a parent that they’re dealing with, it’s the absolute shock and finality of that event. The story is told from the perspective of Milly, who’s the middle child, and she’s really struggling with this loss – as is her mum, and her two sisters. Each of them are suffering in a different way, and Keris does such a brilliant job of exploring and teasing out those different struggles with a light touch.
The grief exaggerates everyone’s personality. Milly is a sensitive, thoughtful worrier and this big tragedy has meant that her anxiety has taken control of her life. It is a delicate and well-handled look at grief and mental health without ever being cloying. The book explores the impact of grieving on the whole family with real tenderness and insight. I think it’s a really lovely book because the relationship between the sisters is so strong and their deep connection forms the foundation of the story. The three sisters are sustained in lots of ways by their relationship and ultimately it is the thing that helps them the most as they begin to heal.
Your fifth and final choice is, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.
This is another book I read quite recently and I just really loved. The sisters are Cath and Wren – they are twins. While the book is mostly about Cath – in terms of taking up space on the page, at least – Wren is such a looming presence through the whole book. It’s like her absence gives her character this larger-than-life role.
The book is about the two of them going off to the same college and it’s narrated by Cath who struggles with social anxiety and has some mental health issues. Her twin sister, Wren, has decided that she doesn’t want to be one half of this pair of twins anymore. She wants to experience life on her own. She won’t share a room with Cath, she wants her independence and to get it she’ll cut herself off from her sister. Where they’d shared everything before, now they’re not together very much. Again, the story becomes one about Cath trying to find her own identity outside of this powerful relationship with her sister. The tension this creates is particularly intense because they are twins and because they have been so close.
Identical twins, in fact.
Yes, and that’s part of the issue. Wren cuts her hair and makes the effort to look distinct from her sister. She wants to try and shake Cath off. Cath ends up feeling really lost because of this. For a huge amount of the book she feels very abandoned by her sister and I think as a reader you empathise with that feeling. Because their mum also walked out on them when they were about eight, being abandoned by Wren feels so much worse even than it would have been anyway and it brings up difficult emotions and memories for Cath. The story is particularly powerful because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists in the context of everything that’s come before for these characters and so as their history is gradually revealed to the reader we better understand why Cath is so profoundly hurt.
Their father is bipolar, isn’t he? Their mother has abandoned them and their father’s an unreliable, up-and-down character.
I found the relationship between Cath and her dad very moving. Because of her own struggles with mental health Cath is afraid of turning into her father. Wren is initially portrayed as the able, independent one, and Cath is the one who has the issues and the problems. Wren seems to be doing the healthy thing by going out and claiming her independence. But then, over the course of the book, you realise that both of them are hugely damaged by their relationship with both their parents, by what’s happened to them, and that’s just coming out in different ways.
It’s really beautiful how – without giving too much away – how the sisters come back together and in a way that needs no apologies. There is no need because – and this idea is I think at the heart of writing about sister relationships – no matter what happens, they will always come back together. They will always be joined together in a meaningful and significant way. That is a bond that I think is particular to sibling relationships. It means that, no matter how bad the disagreement, there’s always a hope that things can be repaired in a way they couldn’t be necessarily in other relationships. It means that while a sister has the ability to hurt you deeply, she can also understand, reassure and support in a way that no one else can.
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