Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: The Orphan Sister by Gwendolen Gross

The Orphan Sister by Gwendolen Gross tells the story of Clementine, one sister of a triplet set of girls. She, however, is the odd one out because her sisters are fraternal twins and always seem much more connected to each other than either is to Clementine. With a scandal involving her father brewing in the background, Clementine explores her "otherness" and tries to figure out not only where she fits in the world but also in her own family.

The book opens with the revelation that Clementine's father is mysteriously missing; Clementine and her twin sisters, Odette and Olivia, alternate between imagining worst case scenarios like their Dad is dead in the street somewhere and suspicion of him and where he might be. It is clear the women - even Odette and Olivia who seem closer to their father and are certainly fulfilling his expectation that they follow in his footsteps with a career in medicine - distrust their father. The family crisis of their father's disappearance instigates an examination by Clementine of her life as an outsider within her own family. Although the three girls are close and can sometimes read each other's minds in the way multiples often report, Olivia and Odette are much more in sync than either sister is with Clementine. Here, Clementine remembers this special connection even present in childhood:
Twins-and triplets, for that matter- understand each other in ways other people can't . . . When we were little and played duck-duck-goose, three of us enough to make games fun -no need for schoolmates, we were a class all by ourselves - Odette and Olivia knew whom they would goose, when even I didn't know which sister I'd pick to chase me in the circle, to put me in the pot. In a way, my own secret language with my sisters was to see their couplehood in a way no one else could. It didn't seem fair that my gift was related to their relationship, when their gifts were related to each other. No one was my doppelganger.
The lack of a doppelganger and what it means to Clementine's sense of self pervades other areas of her life. She struggles in her relationship with her father. She wants to step out of the mold her father has cast for all three girls. Unlike her two sisters who attended Harvard, Clementine shuns the Ivy League and attends Oberlin. She doesn't want to pursue medicine - Olivia and Odette become doctors- but decides to apply to vet school. Her refusal to conform to her father's expectations despite his attempts to control her with his money creates a tension in their relationship and further separates Clementine from her family. Clementine also struggles in her romantic relationships. She is haunted by the memory of her relationship with her college boyfriend and no one can seem to measure up. She is very close to her friend Eli and their relationship has potential to become romantic but that also is not easy for Clementine. By contrast, her two sisters are married and both expecting their first child. Again, their is a "differentness" in Clementine and she just doesn't seem to navigate the world as easily as her sisters.

This book is very rich - the characters are well drawn and their relationships with each other are thoroughly explored. In addition, the thread of the missing father adds intrigue to the story and I found myself wanting to know what had happened and what family secrets would be revealed. I was fascinated by Clementine's relationship with her family - especially her father; the family dynamic scenes were definitely my favorite. I had more difficulty relating to her romantic challenges and wanted to tell her "to get on with it". If you enjoy a book that centers on family dynamics and how they shape its members as their head out into the world, The Orphan Sister is for you.


  1. This sounds fascinating! I can see why someone in Clementine's situation would feel a little bit like the odd man out. I love the cover too.

  2. I'm so glad to read your review of this! I've seen this book around a bit, but I didn't know what to make of it... it seemed like it could be a little too "woe is me" for my taste. However, after reading your review, it doesn't seem like that was the case. Also, the "odd man out" part seems particularly well-thought-out. I'll have to keep this one in mind now

  3. I saw this book for the first time yesterday, love the cover and now I think I am interested in reading also.

    I do like emotional family reads.

  4. I love the idea of the protagonist being part of a set of triplets. This sounds interesting.

  5. Maybe. I think I would like the family dynamics, but would become impatient with the romantic entanglements, too.

  6. We are discussing this book with the author this coming Wednesday, on the phone. It's an open bridge, feel free to join us (you can listen only if preferred). The calls last 30-40 minutes. It's also posted to iTunes if you want to listen later.

    I'm collecting questions for the author, do you have one?

    I enjoyed this book too. Very interesting to think of a triplet being a singleton.

  7. Thanks Mari - I would love to join! I will give some thoughts to a question and get back to you.

  8. Wait, I got confused.. the other two girls are identical and Clementine is fraternal, right? I am definitely all about books about family dynamics and think I'd really like this one. I actually had a friend who was a triplet like in this book, but she was one of the two identical. I always wondered what their fraternal sister must feel.

  9. It sounds as if this might be sort of a depressing story, but I think that even those less melancholy than me (most people) wouldn't call it a downer. As I appreciated in THE OTHER MOTHER, Gross presents emotional and divisive situations with a sort of objective reality that lets the story shine through.
    The mystery of why her father has left, where he has gone, and how each sister and their mother are going to deal with it, gives the right amount of dramatic tension that kept me turning page after page