She is your mirror, shining back at you with a world of possibilities.
She is your witness, who sees you at your worst and best, and loves you anyway.
She is your partner in crime, your midnight companion, someone who knows when you are smiling, even in the dark.
She is your teacher, your defense attorney, your personal press agent, even your shrink.
Some days, she’s the reason you wish you were an only child.
– Barbara Alpert, Sisters
At first glimpse, Alice Hoffman’s tale The Story Sisters appears to be about sweet fairytales and the close ties of sisterhood, added with the spice of the whimsical quirks of childhood and making up of stories. Delve a little deeper, however, and it will dissolve into gritty realism, weaving through the dangers of drug-use, sibling rivalry and painful childhood secrets. Elisabeth (Elv for short), Meg and Claire are the three beautiful, black-haired Story sisters, who live on Long Island with their divorced mother, Annie. Beginning as a picture of sweet sisterhood and well-behaved, trustworthy daughters, their family unit is irrevocably changed when two of the Story sisters endure a shocking experience with a stranger which will set their lives on a spiralling path away from their blissful childhood and into the dark terrain of the mind.
So begins their attempts to recover from their experience, binding it with secrets and creating a magical world called ‘Arnelle’, which becomes a dangerous concept in itself. Taking the innocent idea of common childhood fantasies and ideas of being adopted from their ‘real’, fairytale parents, Hoffman shows how the almost inhuman, and Otherworldly secret world of Arnelle becomes dangerous territory, cutting off any adults intervention and further blurring the girls’ boundaries of imagination and reality. Elv’s refusal to face up to what has happened to her has devastating effects on the whole family, her secret trauma serving to create to rupture her relationship with her sisters, and amplify the growing alienation that she feels.
It becomes apparent that Elv’s secret ordeal – the events of which always remain in the background, while the readers are left to put the clues together – effectively gives birth to a secret world, so that Arnelle itself becomes a coping mechanism, a metaphor which the girls steadily become too invested in. By becoming completely immersed in their beliefs of an alternative world, the girls, and particularly Elv, begin to follow their own codes of conduct, a theme which continues as it begins to represent more and more destructive behaviour.
All three sisters appear to follow the well-known ‘type’ and patterns often seen in fairytales, such as the safety of things in numbers of three (“three brothers”, “three tasks”) as well as other archetypes found in this type of literature, such as the significance of “eldest child, middle and youngest”, and the importance of “bread, iron, water”, commonly recurring fairytale dangers which similarly reappear in this novel. This allegory only serves to further her belief that her human life will somehow lead her to her ‘real’ life, where heroic kings and queens rule, the unjust are punished and it is a fairy place “in which a girl could triumph”. The real world, in contrast, is cruel, and men will often look at them in terms of gratification. It is no accident also, then, that the girls are also quick to take advantage of their surnames of ‘Story’, channelling their love of stories and beauty into their secret world, and imagination. Similarly, Elv herself becomes more otherworldly and withdrawn, her name takes on sinister overtones which hinting at the fairytale-like ‘elves’ and fairies. We see how Elv tries to overcome her fears and her unspoken trauma – but not in the right way. Following her own invented rules to face her faces of “water sex and death” (their fairytale counterparts being represented in ‘bread, iron and water’), Elv’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, showing how she begins to rely on the idea of spells, curses and ‘tasks’ in order to somehow free herself from the prison she has made.
Thus the girls begin to alienate themselves, becoming like “clouds, far and inaccessible”. There is constant reference to the way that the girls are in synch with Nature, their “musical” private language of ‘Arnish’ from the world of Arnelle, implying they are like bird, and their beliefs that they should care for “creatures with no voice”. Even the city Paris is shown as a place of the girls’ retreat, where their grandmother lives, and is depicted as a place of beauty and sophistication, yet this is also a foreign place as well, and therefore a place of escape
However, as a result of this, Annie, the girls’ mother begins to feel left out, feeling like “half a woman”, and unable to communicate her alienation to her daughters. The fairy world increasingly isolates Elv, to the point that even her own sister Meg is excluded, which becomes more apparent as they get older. Their relationship becomes increasingly difficult and eventually splits due to Elv’s cruel remarks, her belief that she is somehow protecting her sisters becomes distorted as she becomes unsure of her own motives. As the novel goes on, there are cracks which begin to appear in the world of Arnelle, such as Claire noticing how the roads of Arnelle all lead to the same place, which is no accident. As Elv begins behave in a more cruel, more relentless and more surreal way, she becomes almost wraith-like and otherworldly, her sisters beginning to be afraid of her and her own self-image and health beginning to suffer. Using drugs as a means of escape, Elv continues to plough through the worst things she can imagine doing to herself, using her image and growing ‘bad girl’ reputation as a mask to cover her pain.
Elv’s idea of truth is “worthless”, and she follows her theory of ‘word making you know’, and also the idea of “unknowing”, which in her mind’s eye gives her logic behind never speaking about what happened to her. The increasing “confines of the everyday world” which Elv tries to escape, however, means that she increasingly finds herself under stifling internal pressure and that she “needs to invent words” in order to create and catch hold of herself, an outlet for her pain.
We see how love also makes its appearances: in the form of her bond with her sisters, and in the form of Lorry, a mirror image of Elv in his own dark suffering and his own underground realm created. to seek refuge in. Similarly, there is a musical love of nature and beauty, the sisters and their mother’s love of growing exotic tomatoes, for example, provide sweet moments of relief, a welcome pause from the intense emotions which abound. Blending fairytales and magic with the ordinary routines of life, Hoffman presents the suggestion that there may be a cure for a broken heart, and that Elv may find peace in her own prison of pain.
This is not a fairytale story, despite its initial appearance, it is rather a story is about losing innocence, and childhood beliefs being shed. All throughout the novel the readers silently plead with Elv to tell someone what has happened, and indeed this is why she is unable to cope with her trauma, and why events escalate so far. We follow Elv’s struggle to find herself, and her values in her sisters, her love for Lorry and even their shared loves of stories, yet these never fully provide an escape and it feels as if Elv may never fully redeem her lost childhood. The Story Sisters has been described as “’Little Women on mushrooms” by the New York Times, yet I believe there is more to this novel than this, it is full of heartbreak and love, and loyalty and cruelty in turns. It may feel as if we are left with a a bleak tale, the truth of what happened to Elv in her childhood is never feeling fully absolved, yet it is above all, a captivating picture about one girl and her sisters. As someone who grew up with sisters, it is a novel which speaks to me about the night-time companions and united secret allies which bear their own unbreakable bonds.
Alice Hoffman, The Story Sisters (HarperPress : Hammersmith, 2010) pp.325 £7.99