Friday, April 17, 2009

Review: Invisible Sisters by Jessica Handler

Book Info:
Invisible Sisters by Jessica Handler
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: PublicAffairs (April 13, 2009)
ISBN-13: 9781586486488
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 2.5/5

When Jessica Handler was eight years old, her younger sister Susie was diagnosed with leukemia. To any family, the diagnosis would have been upending, but to the Handlers, whose youngest daughter Sarah had been born with a rare congenital blood disorder, it was an unimaginable verdict. By the time Jessica Handler turned nine, she had begun to introduce herself as the "well sibling" and her family had begun to come apart.

Invisible Sisters is Handler's powerfully told story of coming of age - as the daughter of progressive Jewish parents who move south to participate in the social-justice movement of the 1960s; as a healthy sister living in the shadow of her siblings' illness; and as a young woman struggling to step out of the shadow of her sisters deaths, to find and redefine herself anew. With keen-eyed sensitivity, Handler's brave account explores family love and loss, and what it takes not just to survive, but to keep living.

The illnesses that struck the Handler children were terrible and I can't imagine losing two children so young, but the heartbreak and grief this caused didn't come through in this memoir.

The first part of the book tells of Jessica's memories growing up. As she kept a journal, these memories had a credibility some childhood reminisces don't. However, Jessica's telling of her childhood felt detached and almost cold. Her sister's illness didn't seem to affect her much. I got the feeling she could be the child of any busy parents who didn't have the time for her.

This memoir is not told in a linear fashion, and this random sequencing of events is not my favorite way to have a story told. I find it hard to get to know people or characters when where they are in life keeps changing.

The later part of the book is told through an adult Jessica's eyes, and I found this part to be stronger. She finally discusses the emotional impact of once being one of three sisters, and now being all alone. However, the emotion in this part of the book doesn't make up for the lack of connection in the beginning of the book. I didn't feel like I really got to know anyone in the Handler family, Jessica included. 2.5 stars


Zibilee said...

Sorry this one wasn't great. I think I would have a hard time with the detachment as well, so even though this book sounds interesting, I probably won't read it. Thanks for the honest review.

Missy B. said...

I had a tough time with this one as well. I didn't feel connected to Jessica at all.

avisannschild said...

I'm sorry to hear this book wasn't great. Mind you, it sounds like a tough story to tell!

Melissa said...

Missy: Thanks for your note. I'll add a link to your review.

Avis: I agree that this would be a tough story to tell, and I know that some families deal with tragedy with stoicism, but it was a little too detached for my tastes.

Lenore Appelhans said...

A friend of a friend had two children with serious health problems (one of them had eye cancer in one eye, and lost the eye). I think some stories are just TOO depressing.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I've seen reviews of this one around, and the opinions have been mixed. Childhood illnesses and deaths, even if it is handled with delicacy or humor, is just about the one topic I can't stomach. Give me serial murderers, war, lice and insanity...just no sick kids.

Hit 40 said...

I agree with Sandy. I like a good serial killer.

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

This week's Newsweek has an essay by Jessica Handler in the "My Turn" section (My Turn is a one-page personal essay, not necessarily related to current events).

The essay was about her decision (with her husband) not to have children, since she was at genetic risk to carry/pass the blood disorder gene.

The tag line said something about her book, which surprised me. I've never seen a My Turn essay that looked so much like book promotion!