By Ekta R. Garg

May 13, 2021

The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Release date: April 13, 2021

Genre: Women’s fiction

Every book contains emotional stakes for both the reader and the characters. Sometimes these stakes overlap—that is, what the reader is experiencing is exactly what the characters are experiencing. Sometimes they run parallel. For example, in a mystery or thriller where the reader knows something the character doesn’t, the reader’s emotional stakes will be slightly higher. The character is just as invested in finding out the truth, but s/he doesn’t have enough information yet to know just how much to invest.

A writer’s job is to balance these stakes at all times, which is hard. It’s tempting to hold onto information simply for the satisfaction of an “aha!” or “gotcha!” moment. These can be fun to write, and they’re fun to read. From an editing standpoint, however, if they don’t make sense within the story, then they haven’t done their job well.

The Good Sister contains just such a moment, and it’s a pretty big one. Main character Fern has spent her whole life believing one set of facts about her twin, Rose. In the climax of the book, it’s revealed that Rose is exactly the opposite of what Fern and almost everyone else knows. There’s one key character who can reveal Rose’s deception, but this person is rendered helpless.

As a reader, I’m as much a fan of the plot twist as the next person. As an editor, I scrutinize these twists. I want them to make sense, because when a book requires as much emotional investment as this book does, that twist shouldn’t leave the reader feeling like they’ve just been walloped in the head by a 50-pound bag.

No doubt, Sally Hepworth had good intentions when writing the plot twist. For me, though, it just doesn’t work. In this book, the reader spends a great deal of time with Rose and develops a high level of sympathy for her. When the story reveals her betrayal, it’s confusing at best. At worst, it made me distrust almost everything else in the story for a while.

Granted, before the big reveal as I got closer to the climax, I started to doubt a few of the minor bits of information that Rose shared. I started to wonder whether she was sharing everything. I think this was intentional on Hepworth’s part, but it didn’t go far enough.

The trouble is that any information we get about Rose comes in third person point of view (POV) through diary entries. Everything we know about Fern is through first person POV. She’s telling her story. She’s directing our attention to the various facets of her life.

Had Hepworth chosen to give us more about Rose through conventional narration, it might have set up the twist a little better. It would have planted enough doubt about Rose’s intentions and her integrity. It might have even cast a shadow on Fern, which might or might not have worked depending on how it was handled.

I realize this is a tricky proposition to undertake, though. There is such a thing as tipping your hand too early and boring the reader with too much information while the characters are trying to catch up. I’ve read books like that too and rated them even lower than this one.

However, Sally Hepworth writes such good characters and builds such compelling plots that I found myself struggling to believe that Rose could deceive anyone. As I kept reading, for several pages I refused to face the fact that everything I’d read about her up to that point was heavily skewed in a particular direction for a particular reason. I wanted to believe in Rose and her plight. I wanted to continue sympathizing with her.

The twist comes at such a late stage in the book that I almost felt cheated in the amount of time and energy I’d spent in believing in Rose, though, and that’s why I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend this novel.

Had I been the developmental editor on this story, I would have asked for a few chapters from Rose’s POV that didn’t come from her diary. The diary, while a great device within the story to control how much information a reader gets, narrows the focus too much. I would have recommended a trial of some pages from Rose just as she is, maybe intersperse regular narration with the diary entries, just to see how that would have shaped the presentation of Rose’s deception.

That would have been a trickier feat to pull off, no doubt, and it might not have worked. I believe Sally Hepworth is talented enough to have done it well, though. I really think she would have found a way to balance everything and given readers a little more preparation for this big about-face that Rose does.

Emotional stakes are everything in a book. To make characters more appealing, those stakes have to be as high as they possibly can. To engage readers, they have to make sense. For me, in this story, they just didn’t.