Book Review: 'The Story Sisters' by Alice Hoffman

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By Wendy Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 3, 2009


By Alice Hoffman

Shaye Areheart. 325 pp. $25

It's a rare year that doesn't bring a novel from Alice Hoffman, and those who follow this maddeningly uneven writer have learned to cast a wary eye on each new offering. Will it be Good Alice, poser of uncomfortable moral dilemmas and marvelously rich portraitist of family life ("Blue Diary," "Skylight Confessions")? Or will it be Bad Alice, blatantly careless plotter and outrageous overdoer of the magic-beneath-the-surface-of-our-lives shtick ("The Probable Future," "The Third Angel")?

"The Story Sisters," actually, is In-Between Alice: excessive and over-determined but ultimately so moving that it overwhelms these faults. Elv, Meg and Claire Story share a secret imaginary world, Arnelle, complete with a private language that they speak to each other. Yes, Hoffman is back in fairy-tale territory. Arnelle made its appearance after 11-year-old Elv rescued 8-year-old Claire from a child molester and was abused in her stead -- the random intrusion of malevolent fate that this author has explored many times before.

Grin and bear it, readers, because a brilliantly detailed delineation of ever-shifting power relations among siblings and a beautiful portrait of love's redemptive power are twined around the fey Arnelle material and grim recollections of the abuse. (Still, Hoffman should trust her readers to get the point -- Elv will never be the same; Claire feels guilty -- without endless repetition.)

The main narrative begins when Elv is 15; she's dangerously reckless, taking drugs and sleeping around, to the horror of sensible Meg, who knows nothing about the abduction her sister endured four years earlier. Claire, meanwhile, seesaws between her siblings but increasingly turns to Meg.

Their mother decides the only thing to do is incarcerate Elv in rehab, despite the carping of her self-absorbed ex-husband, one of the novel's many vividly realized secondary characters. At the brutal facility, Elv meets a junkie who provides her first taste of heroin but also brings her the love she's always dreamed about, "the kind that turns you inside out." After Elv comes home, she's responsible for a death that estranges her from the family, but a series of poignant scenes shows her tentative attempts to reconnect.

Many years after the party that introduced us to the Story sisters, a wedding in Paris provides them a tender opportunity to reconcile. This radiant finale reminds us what a satisfying novelist Alice Hoffman can be, when she feels like it.

Smith reviews frequently for the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post.

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