Review: The Secret Lives Of Sisters

By Jan Shure, September 19, 2008
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by Linda Kelsey
Hodder, £6.99

If you are looking for the narrative pace and effervescent wit of Linda Kelsey's debut novel, Fifty is Not a Four-Letter Word, you may be slightly disappointed by this former Cosmopolitan and She editor's very different, second offering.

It is a darker, slower-paced, revelatory tale featuring Catherine (known as Cat) - the older and bolder of the two sisters of the title - and the narrator, Hannah, known as Mouse because of shyness so acute it occasionally causes her to lose her voice.

The book opens with Mouse/Hannah on the day of her daughter Melissa's wedding, which provides the vehicle for Hannah to share with us her life at present: mother of two (bride Melissa and younger son Charlie, who is in a career hiatus) and successful purveyor of sexy-but-ever-so-tasteful lingerie.

We also learn that she has endured a 20-year sexual drought following the death in a car crash of her much-loved partner, David, and of an antagonism between her and sister Cat relating to former family retainer Mavis.

As Hannah is about to deliver her mother-of-the-bride speech, she loses her voice, catapulting herself, and the reader, back five decades to her childhood in North London.

Here, we meet the rest of the Saunders clan: handsome, debonair (the 1950s adjective is the mot juste) father, Maurice, a former major and now doing well in the shmutter business; beautiful, glacial mother Eleanor; the infant sisters; and plain, frumpy Mavis, the aforementioned maid, adored by Hannah and loathed by Cat - a household that broadly mirrors that experienced by Kelsey herself.

The sisters' lives unfold in this ménage, illustrated by carefully observed vignettes studded with brand names and foodstuffs in between references to popular culture, manners and mores.

Amid episodes of Dr Kildare, anti-Vietnam war protests, mini-skirts and false eyelashes, there is a genuinely shocking suicide and a brace of illegitimate births, leading to a dramatic dénouement that allows Hannah to reconcile her relationship with sister Cat.

While this all makes for a compelling read - especially for those of a certain age, able to recall the innocence of the 1950s, the over-hyped hedonism of the '60s and the style-bereft '70s - Kelsey in this contemplative, nostalgic mood is, for me, less rewarding than in her endlessly amusing Fifty is Not a Four Letter Word-mode.

Jan Shure is the JC's travel editor

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011