The Sisters of Summit Avenue: A Novel by Lynn Cullen

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Her whole life, June had quietly taken whatever knocks had come her way.

Sisters and their rivalries, the imagined and real inequalities of a parent’s love and attention, how it bleeds out upon the world, infects the future. This is a novel about how we often make life choices based on the trauma of our past, and how sibling issues can alter the course of our lives. Ruth has always felt her life has been lived in the shadow of June’s radiant beauty. Everywhere she goes, people are under the spell of it. Luck seems to ooze from her very blessed pores. Of course the natural flow of her life has made her wildly successful, working as one of “the Betty’s” conjuring creative recipes in the famous Betty Crocker test kitchens that other wives, mothers are dying to emulate. Ruth? Ruth is trapped running her family’s farm in Indiana, while her beloved husband is trapped in his body, with the mysterious ailment “the sleeping sickness”. Encephalitis lethargica was a widespread, mysterious, bizarre ailment that left a devastating number of people dead or institutionalized as they were left in a sleep like state. (Some of you may recall the movie Awakenings starring the late, great Robin Williams and Robert Deniro whose character’s symptoms present much the same as John, based on Oliver Sacks non-fiction book about patients who contacted encephalitis lethargica). This is a serious disease not even fully understood today. It is grave indeed, and Ruth is conflicted between resentment and pity.

Ruth must deal with this devastating illness that has stolen her strong husband, leaving in his stead a mostly unconscious (or is he aware still of his surroundings) man. It is on her to raise their girls, varying in ages, to keep their farm going, no mean feat! Her mother is by her side, mostly tending to John while Ruth handles the backbreaking work, becoming more and more bitter with the passing of each day. Why must she always be the one that awful things always seems to befall? Every time she has a chance at happiness, things sour and it’s made all the worse having to witness her sister always rising like cream above the drudgery of life. If God has favorites, certainly it is June, always June and never Ruth. Why, even her own husband, before the illness still longed for the golden beauty! She just knows it. It must be hard to feel like you were made up of leftovers, as if your sibling is meant for great things because of their beauty while you have to fight for every crumb of affection you can rake out of this hungry world. But things are never what they seem.

June’s always garnered attention, unwanted as much as welcome, and while many things in life appear to come easy for her, it is the very things she desires most, the very ones that give life meaning that elude her. She has never understood the bitter heart that beats in her sister Ruth’s chest, why she seems to always want what she has, why she has laid claim to the one man she loved so much. But all of that is in the past, right now she has a career, one that serves as a creative outlet and makes her very popular and while her marriage to Richard, a successful, wealthy doctor seems enviable, there lurks shame within their marriage, things that she has been told she cannot provide for him, things a woman should be able to do. How she would love children, like Ruth has.

Maybe this visit to Ruth and John’s will be a bridge reconnecting the sisters, even if she is conflicted about seeing John in his frozen state. Her heart still has wounds, there was never closure. She would never betray Ruth, she feels pity for her, for everything Ruth must bear on her shoulders, but the past is still a fresh ache. If only she had someone to confide her own sorrows in.

Everyone seems to be harboring secrets and heaping piles of guilt, Ruth with her hired help, June and Richard with what they tell each other and hide, longings that have stewed in John’s sleeping heart, and their mother Dorothy. Dorothy whose own dark past as daughter of the hired help in a wealthy home is the seed to the ruinous relationship between her girls. John’s bizarre illness and the way disabled children, adults were treated ‘back in the day’ give the novel a bit of heft and keeps it from being just another tale about sibling dynamics. Too, the mention of hard times, people at the end of their rope trying to survive and giving up. Ruth is bitter, but not everyone can be an upbeat, gracious Pollyanna when they have spent their life feeling inferior. Maybe their mother is a bit guilty of the imbalance in the sister’s relationship, and maybe her reasons make sense, but you know what people fail to realize, perception is what drives us. We are often shaped by the reactions of our first society, our own parents, and it’s there in the looks Ruth gets from her own, especially when she is John’s chosen. Ruth is hard to take, she is so used to losing that it’s hard for her to see that she has so much love. Her children adore her, and even June still loves her. But her fault has always been in romance, you cannot force the hand of love, and you cannot make people want you more by trying to muddy or take from another. Not the right people anyway.

It is a lesson in self-sabotage and maybe even pride, because as awful as everyone will likely feel Ruth is, June sure as hell doesn’t fight much for what she wants either. The ending threw me, when the past comes knocking at the door, it happened too fast. I think I was expecting more of a fight when a certain character wants to stake his claim in the family, so to speak. It’s never that simple. I expected a meatier ending, but it’s a good read all the same, even if all the characters wore my patience! Half the time you want to say, grow up, speak up, just stop this nonsense. My god but we get in our own way, don’t we?

Publication Date: September 10, 2019

Gallery, Pocket Books

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