Tuesday, December 29, 2009
If it is possible to make the rich look any more vile and horrible than they have been most recently following the near-global economic recession, then Megan Kelley Hall has done so with her slightly fantastic, suspenseful, and otherwise disconcerting novel, Sisters of Misery. Reminiscent of themes we’ve seen before, and the first book in a series (so far there are two books, with The Lost Sister hitting shelves last August), Sisters of Misery makes all those college frat movies about secret societies and evil (and loaded) old white guys getting what they want by doing just about anything short of acting like human beings look tame, and almost sophomoric. The novel follows Madeleine Crane, a high school student in the small town of Hawthorne who has been more or less forced by her mother, Abigail, to become “friends” with a group of high school girls calling themselves the Sisters of Misery (led by the wicked Kate Endicott) in order “keep up appearances.” When her aunt, Rebecca, and her cousin, Cordelia, move in with her and her family, tensions between the family and the town of Hawthorne grow. Cordelia doesn’t “fit in” with the regular crowd, too free-spirited and seemingly unconcerned with what everyone else thinks of her. Soon rumors spread that Cordelia has been “seeing” Kate’s boyfriend, and Kate sets out to get payback. But when things go wrong, and Cordelia disappears, Madeleine finds herself emotionally strained by her fear of the Sisters of Misery and her loyalty to her cousin. Strongest of all, however, is her to desire to figure out what happened on the night of Cordelia's disappearance and whether she had anything to do with it. Hall’s novel is neither a mystery, nor a fantasy, despite it containing elements of both. Madeleine’s search for the answers to Cordelia’s disappearance certainly hints at some of the old teen mysteries I read as a kid (Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys), though with a markedly darker tone, and the lingering sense of something fantastic is present and implied by many of the characters, but never solidifies, instead remaining illusive. Both of these elements create something nostalgic and also incredibly real (actual, not fictional as most fantasies must be). But what works most in Sisters of Misery is the way the story manipulates emotion in the characters and through the reading experience. Madeleine’s struggle with her involvement in Hawthorne’s elite and Cordelia’s disappearance (and Kate’s revenge) are given weight by Hall’s exceptional ability to craft character and emotion. Though the gritty realism of the novel makes for a disconcerting ride (precisely because it is too real), there are some moments in the novel that make you both love and hate Madeleine. She is very much the teenager she’s supposed to be, and makes all manner of mistakes, some of which make sense, and some that don’t. Madeleine’s mistakes, however, created a love/hate relationship for me. On the one hand, I couldn’t help wishing that she had grown a spine and did what any sensible human being would, but on the other I understood why she made many of the decisions she did and began to hope that she would redeem herself. With the emotions running high in Sisters of Misery, it’s no wonder that much of the novel is driven by suspense. Short chapters and Madeleine’s pension for digging up little clues that potentially expose even those she trusts make for a novel that is constantly twisting, constantly changing, and constantly leaving one completely disconnected, not because there isn’t a grain of truth to hold on to, but because you never know who will be implicated next, or how everyone is involved in Cordelia’s disappearance. Add in the cast of secondary characters, some of them so utterly loathsome that you wish you could strangle the life out of them yourself, and you can understand why it is that Sisters of Misery is not at all nice to people who take their wealth for granted. And this is what makes Sisters of Misery both a fun and exciting novel made somewhat more curious by its illusive fantastic elements. No matter how sure I was that Madeleine finally had it right, I could not rely on that assurance at all, because I knew that in a few chapters, Hall would tear away that sense of security, much like she does for Madeleine and leave me grasping for something resembling the truth. But, despite being an exciting novel, Sisters of Misery is also one that disappoints. After all of the suspense and excitement, I was left with an ending that neither cleared everything up nor sufficiently distributed justice to those who most deserved it. Instead, I was left with too many questions unanswered. The problem for me is that despite the insufficient ending, I am too addicted to the characters and the possible answers to be had in The Lost Sister to give them up. Regardless, I still wanted an ending that could lay to rest at least a handful of the the plot points, and though Hall could not deliver on that front, she certainly could deliver by giving me a cast of characters I either love or despise that I can't quite get out of my head (maybe because they're so real, or maybe because I want to know what will happen to them). Hopefully the second installment will tidy up the loose bits. If you’d like to know more about Sisters of Misery, you can check it out at Kensington Books. is available on Amazon and just about anywhere you order your books. Megan Kelley Hall can be found at her website.