Small New England towns always look good in calendar photos, but in fiction, they are often the scenes for dark mysteries that haunt their residents for generations. Such is the case in The Den, where two sets of sisters, 150 years apart, run headlong into their town’s oppressive rules meant to govern the behaviors of young women. Henrietta and Jane, Elspeth and Claire. Two families of sisters who grow up together until one disappears. As the sisters left behind search for their missing siblings, the town will give up its secrets, but what will be the costs to Jane and Claire?
Emma and Claire O’Donnell—orphan sisters living with the Stipps—go missing during the horrendous blizzard that blasted Albany in 1879. A city-wide search turns up nothing, and after a few weeks, most people assume them dead. But six weeks later, the girls arrive back at the Stipp home. Emma’s body reveals an awful truth, yet somehow, the girls’ survival is taken as proof by prominent Albany citizens that the girls cannot be victims. While Winter Sisters takes place over a century ago, the search for justice for rape victims make this brand-new work by Robin Oliveira timely and sadly relevant.
Imagine a comic retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in the upper-class society of Pakistan. After a vicious rumor challenges their place in society, Mrs. Binat searches for a shot of redemption. A high-society wedding with its days and nights of lavish parties and balls is just the opportunity that Mrs. Binat seizes, and she decides that marrying off her five daughters to desirable bachelors will restore the family to glory in no time. All it takes is sister Alys overhearing Valentine Darsee cast shade on the family for the sisters to begin their rebellion, much to readers’ delight in this fun romp.
Before We Were Yours
This novel startles with its story based on true events. Rill is a 12-year old girl with four younger siblings who’s left alone one night when her father rushes their mother to the hospital. Until then, they’ve lived aboard a boat on the Mississippi River, a life they cherish. But as events spin out of control, the children are placed in an orphanage, and Rill worries they’ll never see their parents again. What she has no way of knowing is that the orphanage director has been raking in cash by selling orphans to rich families. Lisa Wingate has written a powerful novel about a national scandal.
The Last Boleyn
Thomas Boleyn had great plans for his two daughters, Mary and Anne. He sends 8-year-old Mary and 5-year-old Anne away to the French court, where the sisters learn adult lessons far beyond the language and the latest fashion. When they return to England, Mary catches the eye of King Henry VIII, a serial philanderer who’s grown tired of his wife. Mary must find a way to meet her father’s ambitions for Boleyn greatness while protecting herself from her capricious king, who believes that none have the right to deny him what he wants. This is the untold story of the Boleyn sister who survived.
The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Sue Monk Kidd complicates this narrative about Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two of the South’s first female abolitionists, by giving alternating chapters to the voices of Sarah and Hetty “Handful” Grimké, the enslaved woman who was “given” to Sarah for her eleventh birthday. The Grimké sisters grew up in luxury, yet both of them matured into women who fought for the abolition of slavery and the improvement in the legal status of women. The relationship between Sarah and Handful is explored in detail, and like Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, asks what type of relationship is possible between an enslaved person and the person who claims to own them.
Critics showered praise on Yaa Gyasi’s multigenerational novel that begins in the mid-18th century with half-sisters Effia and Esi. Effia is married to the British governor of Cape Coast Castle and lives in luxury. Esi will be captured in a raid, brutalized, and then sold into enslavement. The story follows Effia in Ghana and Esi in America, and continues with the six generations who descend from each woman. Gyasi weaves in fables drawn from Ghana and its history after colonization with the fabric provided by African American life in the American South. Slavery’s dark legacy affected everyone thrust into its orbit.
The Makioka Sisters
The four sisters at the heart of this novel, often proclaimed as “the greatest Japanese novel of the 20th century,” are living through tumultuous times. Japan has lost World War II, and around them, everything they know is changing. Their parents think they can secure the family’s future by arranging the marriage of third daughter, Yukiko, who is a captive to their wishes. Youngest sister, Taeko, is the rebel who wants to go to Paris and leave Japan behind, while the two eldest sisters seem the hardest hit by history’s impact. Jane Austen fans should put this on the top of their TBR pile.
Film critics and audiences have adored The Favourite, the story of England’s Queen Anne. In The Royal Sisters, readers meet Anne and her sister Mary, who grew up in the court of their louche father, James II. Events at court unravel as James’s Catholicism makes him anathema to his Protestant country. Mary’s ambitious husband, William of Orange, wants to replace James on the throne. But Anne finds that she’s torn between supporting her sister and listening to the advice of her closest friend, Sarah Churchill.
I Was Anastasia
Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia Romanov were the four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, who grew up with unimaginable riches in Europe’s most lavish court. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks claimed to have executed Anastasia and her entire family. But two years later, a woman claiming to be Anastasia Romanov surfaced in Berlin. Anna Anderson maintained her claim for the rest of her life, traveling to various continents and expecting the royal treatment. Ariel Lawhon gives readers the thrilling story of the woman who claimed for 60 years to be the heiress to the Russian throne.
Vanessa and Her Sister
Vanessa and Virginia Stephen were the center of the Bloomington Set, an artistic group of friends of whom American writer Dorothy Parker said “lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles.” Both women would become better known under their married names—Bell and Woolf, respectively—Vanessa as a painter and Virginia as an author. The women’s relationship was more complex than most marriages: tremendous acts of betrayal, years of professional envy, and episodes of romantic jealousy are just some of the reasons that readers will be fascinated by these two creative powerhouses.
The Wildling Sisters
Applecote Manor reverberates with the happy sounds of the four Wilde sisters—Pam, Margot, Jessie, and Bella—who move take up residence in 1959. Eve Chase captures the different relationships that each sister has with the others, providing readers with many moments of resonance with their own sisterly relationships. But what the sisters come to realize is that the house is shadowed by the disappearance of their cousin, Audrey, who vanished five years prior to their arrival. Margot becomes obsessed with solving the mystery, and the arrival of two handsome neighbors provokes a rift among the four, creating a rich story in which readers can get lost.
The Winter People
Ruthie and Fawn are sisters whose mother has raised them to be independent and free-thinking. When their mother disappears, however, Ruthie’s decision to track her down leads her onto the path of a frightening crime that was never solved. In 1908, Sara was found dead behind the farmhouse shortly after the death of her daughter, Gertie. Ruthie discovers Sara’s old diary in her mother’s room. It contains information that will lead her into a long-ago world of belief in the power of “sleeper” souls, and expose her to dangers far beyond her ken.
Secrets of a Charmed Life
During the Blitz, in which Hitler’s Luftwaffe rained down bombs on London and other British cities, thousands of children were evacuated to the countryside where they could be safe. Among those evacuees are sisters Emmy and Julia Downtree. But the teenaged Emmy wants to accept an apprenticeship with a fashion designer back in London, while her kid sister is desperate to keep Emmy close. What happens to them during World War II will send shockwaves far into the future, a story that an American scholar studying at Oxford will investigate.
Gigi and Bella. Beyoncé and Solange. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. Sisters can be our greatest source of support, but they can also be our most intense competitors. A sister can push you to your limits with her nonsense, but also be the only one you want to talk to when events go pear-shaped.
In these books, writers explore the relationships among sisters from history. Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: one a famous writer, the other a painter whose work didn’t find its audience until years later. Or the Grimke sisters: Sarah and Angelina, who found their life’s work in opposing slavery and advocating for women’s rights, but whose privileged early lives had to be disrupted in order for them to see what other women experienced. Or, in the world of fiction, the Makioka sisters, four women trying to find their paths in a Japan devastated by war. In Ghana, Effia and Esi, half-sisters separated by the kidnapping of one and her enslavement in the American colonies. Or the two pairs of sisters in Abi Maxwell’s work who, over a century apart, suffer similar fates.
These 14 books provide a panoply of experiences involving women across space and time. And yet, despite the cultural, ethnic, and historical differences, they share the unbreakable bond that is sisterhood.
Featured Image: Cover detail from The Den by Abi Maxwell