By Ekta R. Garg
May 20, 2021
The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth
Release date: April 13, 2021
Genre: Women’s fiction
As an author myself, it’s always a pleasure and an exercise in minor envy to read good books. It’s a pleasure because I know how hard it is to write something that transcends all the challenges of publishing and make an impact. Also, I’m one of those readers who enjoys good writing for beauty’s sake. I really do appreciate a good turn of phrase.
The envy is more wistfulness than anything else. I wish other authors well and hope all of their books turn out to be big hits. I also wish the same for myself, and I know I’m still not quite there yet. Maybe someday, but that day isn’t today.
In the meantime, I read as much as possible. That’s usually about a book a week, and sometimes (depending on my non-writing/publishing commitments) I can sneak in another one. This was especially true last year during lockdown.
Sally Hepworth is one of those authors whose work makes an impact and whose stories I think about a lot when I’m in the middle of them. She’s got lovely turns of phrases, and her character building is fantastic. By the end of her books, you feel like you know her characters as well as you know anyone else.
Different writing experts offer a variety of opinions on what makes a strong book. I once heard someone say that great plots make great books and great characters make great careers. If this is true, Hepworth is definitely on the trajectory for a great, long-lasting career.
If you’ve read the first two installments of this month’s R.E.A.D.s, you’ll already know I wasn’t a fan of The Good Sister. The character building was fantastic. I feel like I’ve learned so much after reading Fern and finding out what it’s like to be a person with a sensory processing disorder. It makes sense, now, how they might react and deal with the world the way they do.
Rose, too, starts out as a sympathetic character. Their mother, predictably, is not. Hepworth clearly has designed it that way. It’s all meant to build up to the big plot twist. As an author, though, I don’t think the plot twist works.
Writing fiction, in reality, is about manipulating emotions to a certain degree. Readers know this. In fact, it’s often one of the reasons they come to fiction. They want to live someone else’s reality. They’re signing up for that manipulation, because it provides some relief from their real lives or they want to know how people from different walks of life feel and the only way to embrace that is the manipulation.
I don’t know, however, whether the execution of the plot twist—the “manipulation,” if you will—in The Good Sister is completely fair. I hear the arguments already: life isn’t fair; there’s no way to execute a proper twist if the playing field is always level; part of the writing is the usage of red herrings. I get all that, and I agree with it.
In this case, though, the actual twist pulled me out of the story, and above anything else writers are cautioned not to do anything that will break the readers’ connection with the work at hand. The minute we as authors do something that reminds readers they’re not, in fact, actually living in this world of fiction, we’ve lost them a little. If that happens too many times in a book, readers will want to drop it completely.
Yesterday I had a meeting with my editor for the novella I’ve written that will be published later this year by Atmosphere Press. She asked me to reconsider one small piece of the story, a sort of mini plot twist if you will, and asked whether it was really necessary. Since then I’ve thought about that in light of The Good Sister, and I honestly don’t think the twist was necessary.
For other authors I might have stopped reading but I didn’t here, because as an author I was curious to see how Hepworth would work around the revelation. And she does do it somewhat successfully. But I found myself nervous for several pages after that point. I was afraid that all the time and energy I’d spent in getting close to Fern and, by proxy, Rose would be wasted.
Rose betrays readers in the worst sort of way, but she’s not the protagonist. Fern is. However, I didn’t want to end up disliking her for the duration of the book. I was afraid my sympathy for Fern would be betrayed.
That’s not what happened, fortunately. In fact, Rose’s betrayal endears Fern to readers even more. And that’s a good thing. It’s probably what Hepworth wanted, so for that reason the book is a win. But as a reader, I spent so much time with Rose before finding out the truth that I wanted to turn away from the entire book after that point.
In some ways, I’m glad I didn’t. I wanted to know what happened to Fern, and her story, at least, has a satisfying ending. It just cost me more than what I was prepared to give up when I started reading.
I’ve enjoyed Hepworth’s previous books, and I saw on social media that she’s hard at work on a new book. I’ll definitely request to read and review that one, because even if I don’t like the trajectory of some parts of her stories I do appreciate other pieces. That’s one of the nice things about being an author myself now. I have a fairly accurate idea of what she went through to write this novel, because I’m doing it myself every single day.
I just wished I liked the book more overall.