There is an unspoken covenant between novelists and readers that goes something like this: Enter my world and I will entertain/enchant/excite you, create memorable characters that seem real and yet unlike anyone you've ever met. I will torture said characters through the course of the book and, in the end, give them closure.
In her latest novel, The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman has created a magical family. Three beautiful sisters with long black hair live in an old Victorian house on Nightingale Lane. Their mother, the lovely Annie, grows an epic garden of heirloom tomatoes in bizarre hues: yellow, striped and even brown.
When a teacher at Claire's school tries to abduct 8-year-old Claire in his car, 11-year-old Elv jumps in with her and manages to get Claire out. Elv remains in the clutches of this evil man for an entire day, escaping in the evening and refusing to speak of her ordeal. On that day, the Story sisters begin speaking their own secret language they call Arnish. They didn't invent it, it simply arrived fully formed and understood to all three of them. Now teenagers, the two haven't told anyone about the horror, not even their sister, Meg, who feels left out of some mysterious bond.
And this is where Hoffman really digs into that unspoken novelist/reader covenant. She positively relishes torturing her enchanting, ethereal creations. Self-destructive Elv veers from one bad decision to another, and just when it seems impossible for her to sink lower, she does, dragging her family with her. Because in the same world where demons can be caught on fly paper, sisters invent an entire language and the light in Paris changes color every hour, there are also cancer, car accidents, addiction and jail sentences. Darkly mixing the mundane and horrible with the glorious and transcendent, Hoffman allows the Story sisters to find a measure of redemption, but it is slow and a long time coming.
Novelist Tammar Stein is the author Light Years and High Dive.