Sisters One, Two, Three by Nancy Star

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“But in the Tangle house, order came and went in fits and starts. Chaos was far more reliable.”

The story starts with three sisters and a little brother. This may well be one of the saddest family stories I have read in a long time. Those looking for a light beach read often pick Women’s Fiction assuming it’s going to be happy endings and baked cookies, as if our literature can’t be disturbing, dysfunctional or raw. This novel is all those things, it is a woman trying to have a better family where chaos isn’t the norm, trying to keep her daughter in a safe bubble because she knows all too well it’s not just the things we see coming that can destroy and kill, it is in the freak accidents too. Ginger is a nurse, she feels it is her mission to keep everyone safe and this turns out to be the very thing causing a distance between her and her teenage daughter Julia. It’s fine and good when our children are young and we are their whole world, but it’s a normal phase for teenagers to grow, to learn to ‘adult’ while still under the umbrella of our protection. The problem is, Ginger’s control issues in the name of safety verge on the obsessive, interfering with normal functioning. As the reader journey’s back to the 1970s and the Tangle family’s ill fated vacation on Martha’s Vineyard it becomes crystal clear why Ginger can’t leave anything in her family’s life to chance.

The tangle family is composed of Ginger (the eldest, the mini mother) , Mimi,  Charlie (the only brother) , youngest sister Callie, mother Glory and their father Solly. Solly is the toy king of junk, running a business of overstock toys, as the story tells “Shipments of See ‘n Say where cows went oink. X-Ray Specs with only one lens. Pens with no ink.”  To say Glory is disappointed in her husband and the way her life has turned out is an understatement. Beautiful, once on the path to stardom as an actress (if her exaggerations are to be believed) finding herself chained with four children and a lumbering husband is what sets off ‘episodes’, moods like storms that come with debilitating headaches. Mothers throughout time have been the center, she’s the one who fixes everything, our nourishment, who wipes our tears and in some family’s that role doesn’t come naturally. “The Tangle children tried to make themselves good-natured, but no matter how much Glory wished they would become part of the blur of the beach children, racing in and out of water, flushed and happy, bodies glistening with a dusting of damp sand, she was stuck being the mother of Charlie and Callie, who refused to do anything but dig a hole to China, and Mimi, who had come up with a trivial project of her own, building a rock tower to the moon. Ginger irked her the most of all, using her reflector not to improve her tan but as a shield in front of her face, so people would leave her alone.”

Glory was desperate to be a part of that wealthy group of privileged friends, for her own children to be happy and carefree, rather than clumsy and ordinary, neglecting to realize her own stormy moods aren’t the environment sunny children spring from. Glory’s the sort of person whose emotional state is the measure of how everyone else’s day will go. “Glory’s eyes went dull. She could do that, make the light in her eyes flick on or off as if there were a hidden switch.” Parents together form our universe, and when there is mutual respect and balance the home is stable, the calm we look to in keeping us safe from the often chaotic world outside. The Tangle family is the exception, Glory’s desire for something richer than her current state of living, Solly’s gruff manner, the clashing personalities where disagreements can turn into all out war creates an unbearable home-life. Ginger is the little mother who steps in while her mother is finding herself with her theater group or behind closed doors avoiding her children. When an encounter with another man inspires Glory to obtain a rental at Martha’s Vineyard, the children can’t wait to escape the tension of home.

13, Ginger has decided is going to be an unlucky birthday, but it is far worse than she could have conjured in her worrisome mind. As her mother’s ‘bruised little peach’, the tragedy that happens on the trip will create in Ginger an obsessive need to avoid the dangers and risks everyday life imposes upon us. What happened on the beach that day is remembered in fragments that each sister recalls differently. In a silent family, the truth is distorted and what is solid melts beneath children’s feet. Each member walks away with a dose of self-blame, all the Tangle members are broken, and grief that isn’t confronted blackens not just memories but faith, hope, and future happiness.

As an aside, the family and their ‘Tangle Mangling’ of words was a wonderful quirk in the story. Everything comes together in the end, and it’s proof of tenderness in the seemingly emotionally stunted Glory. Callie, the youngest seems to be the only one ever able to win her mother over, simple for being herself. There is an ethereal element in her nature that survives even after tragedy strikes. Callie becomes a tender spot, as the youngest she was always left out and Charlie was her anchor. When he is gone… so too her world.

Glory is more brass as she gets older, but it’s with her death that past tragedies are confronted. Youngest sister Callie returns, but just where was she really? Why is she always disappearing, is it just her nature that causes wanderings? Certainly that day couldn’t have darkened her future as it did both Ginger and Mimi’s lives. What lies did Glory keep to her dying breath and why? Ginger’s own family is falling apart, her daughter flees and it’s a brutal severing but maybe necessary in order for healing to begin. Glory is a cold mother, often bitter and allowing her jaded opinions about love, family to spoil Ginger’s girlish innocence. On the flip side, the things that should have been told were locked away. Was Glory just trying to save her girls much in the same way Ginger wanted to create a safe existence for her own daughter Julia?

Readers will sour on Glory, but the tragedy breeds conflicting emotions. Glory suffers any parent’s worse nightmare, in a double tragedy of sorts. We don’t understand the full picture, much like the puzzles Glory loves to piece together, so too the novel. Was Glory redeemed at the end? No, not anymore than any of us are redeemed in death. She was selfish before she endured loss. Her children needed her far more than she gave, but it may just have been all she had. The reader can feel compassion though, and in her own way she loved all her girls, and her son as well. Some families are tight lipped, some too loose lipped, it’s so hard to find the perfect balance when we are imperfect beings. In this novel though, the Tangles keep tight explanations that could  have changed the trajectory of the girls relationships or lack thereof. In hindsight we have all the answers. Glory isn’t forgiven for often treating Ginger as an adult and snipping away any romantic girlish hopes for happiness, we all need doses of reality so we aren’t incapable of facing adulthood, but all children deserve a childhood unclouded by adult disappointments. Things come in due time, anything before is just cruelty. But in truth, in being over protective she is similar to her own mother in the wedge it puts between her and her own child.

This is brutal, sad, and full of family dysfunction which for so many is a reality. Maybe a reader will recognize their own family’s failings or maybe feel lucky they were spared such an upbringing. Either way, it kept me engaged. Of all the characters, what happened to Callie touched me the most. As for Julia’s choices, in breaking free she hurts her mother deeply, but remembering what that age was like and imagining the prison suffocating mothering can be, is it really that shocking?

Available Now

Lake Union Publishing

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