By Ekta R. Garg

May 27, 2021

The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Release date: April 13, 2021

Genre: Women’s fiction

I’ve spent this month telling you why I didn’t like The Good Sister. To me, a story is a contract between writer and reader. The writer promises something; the reader waits for that promise to be fulfilled. Depending on the length of the contract, it could have many clauses that may or may not be completed.

Sally Hepworth’s newest novel failed in one important clause. It expected readers to make a complete about-face regarding Rose, the sister of main character Fern, and then take that at face value. The trouble with that is that Hepworth did such a fantastic job building Rose’s character up to that point that I had trouble turning all the way around for the about-face. I kept wanting to turn back and say, “But what about that story point over there? What happened to that?”

On the other side of that coin, I think, is evidence of why Hepworth is so successful. Even in my analysis this month of what didn’t work for me, there’s direct proof of Hepworth’s talent. Of the fact that what she set out to do actually did work in a limited fashion.

Confused? Let me explain.

No matter what the story might be about or how I might feel about the plot, as I’ve said before Hepworth excels at character building. She brings people into the worlds of the people in her stories in such a convincing way that they feel like neighbors or friends or family. Writing experts might call this a “lived in” story. Another description might be “three dimensional.” Her work is always relatable.

Also, I might have wanted to point out what I thought were drawbacks in the story, but the fact that I’m still writing and thinking about it more than a month after I read it proves my point: Hepworth’s characters make an impression. When I think about what Rose did in The Good Sister, my thought isn’t, “This character feels fake” or “The craft is flat” or any other criticism of the craft. My thought is, “How could she do that?”

See? Rose’s betrayal still rings loud for me. I still want to run back to Fern and give her a tight hug…which she probably wouldn’t like. So maybe a fist bump or a high five if it made her comfortable.

Hepworth’s plot may have not hit the mark for me, but the characters were spot on. It’s clear now, after reading the entire book, what Rose did. Truthfully, about a third of the way through the novel, I started to wonder whether something might be off about her. This, I think, is where the story let readers down, because Hepworth didn’t really drop any red herrings at all.

This might have been intentional; I don’t know. It’s a balancing act, this business of letting the reader in without giving them too much information so as to spoil the whole story. It’s a topic I discussed with my own editor last week—how much do we give away? How much should writers hold back in order to surprise the reader with? If we reveal key information early, what does that mean for the story? If we hide it, what does that mean?

I’d never quite thought about it that way before. My editor was encouraging me to reveal something that, in the original drafts, I’d hidden for the sole purpose of dramatic effect. When she asked me to consider the impact of revealing the piece of information earlier than I wanted and what that might mean, I realized I was actually holding onto the information more for my own enjoyment. My own glee and delight at letting readers come across bits and pieces just for the sake of the hunt itself.

I went back and included the information earlier, and I realized that in terms of the overall arc of the story and my protagonist…nothing changed. The character still went through the same pain and suffering, came to the same resolution, went through it all pretty much the same way. The only difference now was that my readers had an additional layer of understanding of why the protagonist is in so much pain in the first place.

It actually deepens the relationship between the readers and the protagonist.

Now, mind you, for The Good Sister, Rose isn’t the protagonist. She’s a strong supporting character to her sister, Fern. But Fern undertakes specific actions because of Rose’s experiences. So Rose was the instigator for a big change in Fern. She was also the instigator of the undoing of major relationships.

Unfortunately, readers don’t really know that last part until close to the end.

I don’t know that holding back key information worked in this case. I think the story would have been better, more of a slow burn of terror in Fern’s favor, if Hepworth had let us in on the secret earlier. Regardless, even though I don’t agree with Hepworth’s choices, the fact that I’m still thinking about them all this time later proves what I said before. Hepworth is incredibly talented.

As a Dreamer of stories, I want to have this kind of impact on readers. As much as I dread the thought, I know that there will be people who don’t like my books. They will feel like reading them was a lackluster experience. Some of them might even say it was a waste of time. But if I can keep making some of the naysayers think about the story even long after they’ve finished it, then I think I’ve still accomplished my role as writer and storyteller.

Of course, as a Dreamer, I want only four- and five-star reviews. A writer can hope, after all, right?