By Ekta R. Garg

May 6, 2021

The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Release date: April 13, 2021

Genre: Women’s fiction

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

Australian author Sally Hepworth’s newest book, The Good Sister, came out last month, and it’s gotten several thousand positive reviews. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Hepworth’s previous books. The Mother-In-Law, in particular, was fantastic. The twist in the plot made me earmark Sally Hepworth as an author whose books I request right away. That’s what I did when I found out she had a new novel coming out this year.

In The Good Sister, all of Hepworth’s strengths shine: a compelling storyline; endearing characters. A deep commitment to what she’s set out to do. Hepworth doesn’t waffle. She keeps her eye on her goal and drives it home.

Yet this book didn’t work for me on a variety of levels, and this month I’d like to share some thoughts on why.

Here’s the quick version of the novel. Fern Castle has a sensory disorder—she feels like everything in the world is too loud, too bright, too overwhelming. She manages her life pretty well, including holding down a great job at the local library, but she doesn’t like eye contact or engage in other forms of intimate communication with people.

The one exception to this is her twin sister, Rose. Fern would do anything for her. In addition to the bond that twins share, Rose helped Fern survive their childhood. Their single mother was unstable and often took out her frustrations on the girls. Rose stood up for Fern, helping her navigate the world when no one understood Fern’s challenges. 

Rose wants to have a baby, but she shares with Fern that the doctors have told her she can’t. So Fern comes up with what seems like the most logical solution. She’ll just have a baby and give it to Rose. All she needs to do is find someone to have the baby with. Which means getting out and meeting new people.

Fern isn’t big on close relationships, but when she meets Rocco at the library—who she calls Wally for reasons that make sense to her—she discovers that he’s a genuinely great guy. She starts spending time with Wally, and it makes her have feelings she didn’t know she could have.

Rose is a little suspicious of Wally, which makes sense. She’s always been super protective of Fern. But for once, Fern doesn’t want to look before she leaps. She wants to follow her heart, which leads her to questions and places that never occurred to her before. The more she asks and reflects on her life, the more she realizes that maybe she’s looking at her memories through the wrong lens. Maybe everything she thought she knew for truth isn’t quite that.

It sounds like a compelling storyline, and it certainly was. Hepworth does a fantastic job of rounding out her characters so that they feel like real people. I learned a lot about how people with sensory disorders view the world and how difficult it is for them to navigate life on a daily basis. There’s no doubt that Fern is a winning protagonist, and Hepworth made the right choice in making her the star.

Rose’s story, too, will touch your heart. Halfway through the book, though, you get the sense that something doesn’t quite add up. It’s hard to know whether that’s just Rose being overprotective or whether she’s hiding something.

Because I read and edit books for a living, my radar was already on high alert for some shift in character; however, I wasn’t expecting the completely about-face that Rose does.

I won’t spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it. Suffice it to say, Rose isn’t completely upfront with who she is and what her intentions are. While this kind of hairpin turn worked well in books like Gone Girl—too well for me; I was terrified when I finished that novel—I personally don’t think it went around the curve as cleanly in The Good Sister.

I wonder if this is as much about my writing sensibility as anything else. I love a good shock in a story as much as the next person, but for me it also has to make sense. It can’t just be in there to make people gasp. The rest of the story has to support that twist in an organic way. Here, it just didn’t.

The minute Rose’s deception is revealed, I felt like I couldn’t trust anything else in the book. The only person I trusted was Fern, and for a few pages I wondered whether I could do that. I kept wanting to go back to the beginning of the novel and reread things to see what I’d missed. I thought I was crossing a bridge from one side of the story to the other, but halfway down the bridge it suddenly became shaky and made of rope instead of solid wood.

Many readers, of course, disagree with me, as is obvious in online reviews. That’s okay. I’m glad they found genuine enjoyment in Hepworth’s novel, because parts of it are truly wonderful.

I agonized over how many stars to give it for that reason. I absolutely loved Fern, and Wally/Rocco is so kind and true to her. But Rose…I just couldn’t buy into her character after the big reveal. (I’ll cover more of the writing aspects of this in the weeks to come, particularly in the next two installments as Editor and Author.)

Hepworth’s writing is solid, and her diehard fans will probably race through this one. The extreme switch was too much for me to buy into, but that might just be me. That’s why I recommended that readers Borrow The Good Sister.