As girls growing up in Clare Valley, Australia, Anna, Bett, and Carrie Quinlan were childhood singing stars known as The Alphabet Sisters. The unbridled enthusiasm of their flamboyant grandmother Lola was the glue that held them together. As adults, though, the women haven’t spoken in years–ever since Bett’s fiancé deserted her to marry the younger Carrie. Now Lola is turning eighty and she is determined to reunite the girls for a blowout bash. And no one ever says no to Lola.
Bett, who fled to London after the scandal of losing her fiancé, is hesitant to face her sisters and her hometown–especially since she has yet to find another man. Sophisticated Anna, the eldest sister, isn’t too keen on the prospect either, though she’s secretly grateful for any excuse to leave her crumbling marriage behind in Sydney. And Carrie, who remained in Clare Valley, is perhaps the most apprehensive. Her marriage–the nominal cause of the sisters’ estrangement–is also on the rocks. Was she wrong to have followed her heart and run off with Bett’s fiancé?
When Lola shares her special request, that the girls stage a musical she has written, their short visit becomes a much longer commitment. As they are forced to spend more time together, the sisters must confront the pain that lingers between them. Preconceptions and misunderstandings are slowly put aside and the three find themselves gradually, irresistibly enveloping one another once again–until an unexpected turn of events changes everything in ways none of them could have ever imagined. . . .
Layering the lighthearted antics of small-town life with a heartbreaking story of loyalty lost and found, The Alphabet Sisters is an unforgettable story of two generations of women who learn that being true to themselves means being true to one another.
‘The Alphabet Sisters’ is the 2005 fiction novel by Australian author, Monica McInerney.
It was the opening line that hooked me enough to purchase this ebook and give it a go;
‘Your sister is married to your ex-fiancé?’
Yep. I had to know more.
Sadly, the explosive premise promised in the opening chapter is never really delivered.
The book is told from various perspectives, but mainly that of Bett; the somewhat tubby middle child, who grew up watching boys fall for her sisters and felt the last straw was her beautiful blonde little sister stealing her fiancé. Bett has spent the past two years in a London dream-job-gone-bust, and is called home upon threat of ex-communication by her grandma Lola. Carrie is that beautiful blonde little sister who fell in mad love with Bett’s then fiancé, now Carrie’s husband, Matthew. Carrie has remained in their home town to help run the family motel, but her marriage (the one she fought so hard for, and resulted in radio-silence from her sisters for years) is on the rocks ever since grandma Lola announced Bett was coming home. Anna is the elegant and poised eldest sister, who dreamed of becoming an actress and is now a voice-over specialist. She lives in a loveless marriage with her adulterous husband, and is still reeling from her daughter’s dog-attack which left her scarred and bullied at school.
All three sisters are being called home to Clare Valley for their beloved grandma’s birthday. But the three of them haven’t spoken to one another in years – ever since the night Carrie and Matthew sat Bett down and revealed their love for one another. Bett flung words at both Carrie and Anna, and then fled in the middle of the night, and has not returned home since. Anna told her little sister exactly what she thought of her latest cruelty in stealing Bett’s beloved, and Carrie likewise threw back hard truths about Anna’s obviously crumbling marriage. The sisters have been at a silent impasse ever since. And it’s a shame, because in their youth they were inseparable – they even toured the country as young singing group ‘The Alphabet Sisters’ managed by Lola.
The premise of McInerney’s book is clearly inspired somewhat by the infamous Andrews Sisters; an American close harmony singing group of the swing and boogie-woogie eras. The Andrews Sisters were huge during WWII, but they had a rather infamous falling-out midway through their careers. Patty Andrews once told Merv Griffin, “The Andrews Sisters only had one big fight. Really. It started in 1937 and it’s still going!” While ‘The Alphabet Sisters’ is set in modern times, the singing group and sister rift is clearly inspired by the real-life Andrews sisters.
It was the sister’s rift (and the reason behind it!) that really intrigued me with this book. But when the sisters all return home for Lola’s birthday there are no explosions for a long time – they’re all walking on eggshells around one another. And when we get each sister’s perspective, McInerney allows the sisters to tease out the feud and the parts they played in it internally – so readers are made privy to the fact that Carrie is haunted by her betrayal of Bett, and thinks maybe her and Matthew’s relationship was doomed from the start because of it. Anna admits the depth of her hurt over her husband’s ongoing affair with a woman and his recent moving out of home. And Bett is able to reason with the fact that she’s always hated playing second-fiddle to both her beautiful sisters, and even if she knew Matthew wasn’t ‘The One’ when he proposed to her, his betrayal with Carrie still stung. All these revelations aren’t uncovered through explosive fights and physical confrontations between the sisters – most of these revelations come in the most hum-drum of internal monologue ways. Yawn.
I actually think the multiple-narratives from each sister is the real detriment to this book, especially since I only liked Bett. She’s the underdog; the bookish, mousy one who never felt adoration from a man, and when she finally did he was snatched away by her blonde little sister. How can you not root for an underdog like that? Even more so when Bett thinks back to her childhood and teenage years, and pinpoints the moment she really started to drift away from her sisters;
It had been the start of a horrible period of her life. From that moment on it seemed as though Anna and Carrie had been set adrift from her, into a world of romance, dates, boys and confidence. Bett had felt like Cinderella and Bessie Bunter rolled into one – overweight, unhappy, finding pleasure only in food and books and her piano.
By comparison, Anna and Carrie were cold and uncaring characters. I couldn’t even rouse a whole lot of sympathy for Anna with her cheating husband and scarred daughter because she was just so cold, and it frustrated me that in flashbacks it’s revealed that she didn’t really side with Bett enough when Carrie revealed her affair.
And, on the topic of Carrie, I hated her. McInerney certainly set her up with the longest distance to fall and be redeemed, but she didn’t even come close to being tolerable. It didn’t help that in flashbacks to her budding love affair with Matthew, Bett hardly figured into Carrie’s wayward heart. And even in present day she apologizes for hurting Bett, but not the affair. I’m sorry; but you steal your sister’s fiancé (regardless of the fact that Bett and Matthew were a poor match) and you’d better have some redemption up your sleeve. Sadly, no. McInerney has kept Carrie as a selfish little brat who hates that everyone blames her for the sister’s feud and silence, but seems reluctant to take that blame on board in any meaningful way. All her scenes just made my skin crawl;
‘Are you still sleeping with her?’
Matthew looked uncomfortable. ‘I can’t. I want it to be you. It wouldn’t be fair.’
It made her feel better, for herself, even while she felt sorry for Bett. But it just seemed out of her control, out of their control, as though it was fated, and destined and all the magical things.
For me, Bett should have been the one-and-only narrative star of this book. She was all I cared about, and I'd have loved if this was about her coming home to confront her sister, her ex-fiancé (now brother-in-law!) and move on to her own happiness. As it is, McInerney gives so much page-time to all the sisters that even when Bett is given a romance it’s rushed and reliant on what happened with a young man some years ago. Especially underwhelming when Bett is the underdog all readers will be rooting for, and her happily-ever-after is underplayed and under-developed.
The plot of the book goes into wacky-wonky territory when Grandma Lola tries to play peace-keeper and bring the sisters back together by way of a town play she insists they put on for her. And, yes, it’s as crazy and contrived as it sounds.
But in the last 50 or so pages McInerney must have sensed that the weighty plot points promised in the first chapter hadn’t really been delivered (especially after they were so easily resolved) so she throws out a curveball climax in the last few chapters that is such a blatant plea to pull on reader’s heartstrings that it’s embarrassing. Even more so when it comes too little too late and probably would have worked better as the premise or not at all.
Any rating I give this book is for Bett – who I did like throughout and wish I'd been able to spend more (/all) time with. Otherwise, this was a book with big emotional promises that should have been a family saga/drama but quickly devolved into internal-monologue hell, wacky town melodrama and a ridiculous last-minute climax. Yikes.