By Sally Allen
For those of us who have them, siblings provide the first models for our future peer relationships and the comparative base against which our dawning sense of self develops. They can be our best friends and toughest critics, our most staunch competitors and fiercest advocates. Those of us who parent siblings embrace the challenges and rewards of nurturing these relationships that, we can only hope, will far outlast our own relationships with our children.
The following ten novels explore sibling relationships in all their richness and depth, from loving to contentious and back again.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Beginning in media res, Rosemary Cooke narrates her family’s story, which includes a fugitive brother, a lost sister, and an explosive secret. The reader has little idea where this quirky, loquacious storyteller is taking us until the identity of Rosemary’s sister and how she was lost are revealed late in the novel.
Propelling us through this mystery is a madcap plot and bitingly funny writing. But the novel’s underlying story meditates on serious questions about how our early sibling relationships, and the narratives we construct around them, shape our mannerisms and characters. More significantly, they can become the yardstick against which we measure our individual selves.
Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia
Racculia’s novel offers a labyrinth of riveting plots and subplots revolving around a fading New York resort, a 15-year old murder-suicide, and a statewide teen music festival. Bellweather is the resort where, in 1982, a bride shot her groom and hung herself in room 712 and where, in 1997, teen flute prodigy Jill is found hanging from the sprinklers, again in room 712. But her body disappears, setting off the first mystery of the weekend—was it suicide, murder, or a prank?—that spawns more.
Central to the intertwining narratives are twins Alice and Rabbit, participating in the festival as vocalist and bassoonist respectively. Always center stage Alice is the exuberant twin, while shy Rabbit trails in her wake. But after Rabbit asserts himself at an orchestra rehearsal, he is thrust into the spotlight, leaving Alice frustrated with their role swap. Meanwhile, Rabbit is keeping a big secret from Alice, fearing how its reveal will affect their relationship and illuminating how difficult it can be to carve a singular identity in the face of our siblings’ expectations.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Lowland follows the divergent fates of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, born in Calcutta at the dawn of India’s independence. As children, the boys were as close as two siblings could be, but their paths take them in separate directions in adulthood. Subhash travels to the U.S. to study while Udayan stays in Calcutta to join a political rebellion.
Lahiri’s narrative shifts points of view, weaving back and forth in time, and dialogue is not set off in quotation marks or otherwise demarcated with speech indicators. The cumulative effects of this storytelling provoke in the reader a sense of dislocation, echoing that experienced by the brothers, who cannot bend the world, internal or external, to meet their will for it. The novel invites the reader to ponder how deeply we can claim access to the inner lives of others—their most closely guarded desires, fears, and transgressions—even those closest to us.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
In Smith’s award-winning debut novel, conflicting beliefs intersect and collide in multiethnic North London during the latter half of the 20th century. Shifting perspectives across the decades, the story follows two families, the Joneses and the Iqbals, chronicling their struggles and temptations, including as immigrants, as Muslims, as non-white citizens of England.
Among the Iqbals are twin brothers, Magid and Millat. Disturbed by how Western life is influencing them, their father, Samal, decides to send them back to Bangladesh to be raised according to Muslim tradition. But Samal can only afford to send back one of his sons. The one who leaves become idealized, canonized in a photo that holds pride of place in the family home, while the one left behind competes with an illusion of perfection. The consequences of Samal’s decision are far-reaching for both brothers in this deeply affecting novel, and not at all what he (or readers) might expect.
The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang
On June 16, 2004, brothers Stephen and Leo, polar opposites in every way, prepare for a their grandmother’s funeral and their striver parents’ Bloomsday party later that night. Caught between them is Nora, best friend of the former and fiancée of the latter. Oldest Stephen, a graduate student, fulfills his parents’ intellectual pretensions but questions his purpose as an academic. Leopold, an IT consultant who enjoys beer and sports, longs for acceptance from his parents but rejects their pretentions. Nora, a talented opera singer, had a promising career on the horizon but abandoned it in the wake of her mother’s death and is beset by crippling anxiety.
Each character harbors secrets that bubble contentiously to the surface over the course of the day in this novel about intersecting stories, the search for personal meaning, and the difficulty of coming to terms with who you are in relation to those around you, especially your siblings.
Howards End by E. M. Forster
The fates of the three families intersect in Forster’s harrowing but lyrical portrait of English society at the turn of the 20th century. At the heart of the story are the Schlegels—spirited Helen, her spinster-ish older sister Margaret, and their younger brother Tibby. The Schlegels have independence and money enough to immerse themselves in cultural interests and bohemian projects. One of these is Leonard Bast, a clerk Helen and Margaret befriend, who is estranged from his family due to his relationship with “unrespectable” Jacky.
In an effort to help Leonard advance in his career, the sisters pass on news about his firm picked up from posh Henry Wilcox, a family acquaintance. But the information leads Leonard down a path to disaster. After Helen improbably enters into a relationships with Henry, the two sisters find themselves at odds over Leonard’s circumstances until a tragedy forces them to reckon with how deep their rift runs.
Twisted Sisters by Jen Lancaster
Sibling rivalry takes center stage in this fun, breezy read. Self-absorbed, tightly wound television psychologist Reagan Bishop is a Shopaholic-esque unreliable narrator who complains that her parents favor her sisters, hairdresser Geri and mother of eight Mary Mac, over Reagan and her accomplishments. Under pressure from the network that bought her show and desperate to advance her career, she accepts the help of New Age healer Deva, whose unusual methods lead to major changes for Reagan, personal and professional.
Lancaster’s narrative style is discursive, blending a clever plot with magical realism and hilarity by the barrel. But underlying Reagan’s humorous career misadventures lies a heartwarming story with an earnest message about the power of sisterhood.
Always Emily by Michaela MacColl
MacColl is the author of four young adult novels featuring famous female historical figures as teenagers, with a fifth coming in April. Always Emily portrays the relationships among the surviving Bronte siblings, with a focus on teens Emily and Charlotte and their brother Branwell. The story finds fiery Emily and prim Charlotte investigating the connection among a suspicious death, a string of burglaries, a secret society, and a handsome stranger with a mysterious past. This while worrying about Branwell, whose struggles with grief and expectations lead to alcohol abuse.
MacColl deftly weaves a page-turning mystery with history and themes from both authors’ literary works. Always Emily is a treat for book lovers familiar with the authors’ novels but also a compelling portrait of how very different siblings respond to family tragedies and legacies.
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
The story’s catalyst is the death of Greta’s brother, Felix, presumably from AIDS, in 1985. Losing her beloved sibling plunges Greta into a depression so debilitating that her doctor recommends electroconvulsive therapy. She consents and, upon waking from the first treatment, finds herself in a different time, 1918. Excepting the year, everything about her life is the same—her family, address, lover, even her depression, though its source differs. In 1918, Felix is alive, but his life is a lie. To treat her 1918 depression, Greta is prescribed electroshock therapy, prompting a journey to another parallel life in 1941, which invites new challenges.
Greta longs to “fix” each of the worlds she inhabits, to make them more whole, more in keeping with the idealized outcomes she desires, for herself and her brother. But her best intentions cannot be realized before their time, or perhaps ever. Her struggle, and Felix’s, is to recognize and work within the parameters of the governing systems, acknowledging that, while pain and loss are ever present, their sting can be mediated.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I know, I know. In the popular imagination, Pride and Prejudice is held up primarily for its romantic, not sibling, ideals. But against the backdrop of the adaptation-worthy marriages between Elizabeth and Darcy and Jane and Bingley, the relationships among five very different sisters play out—sweet, even-tempered Jane, lively, strong-willed Elizabeth, leaden Mary, and flighty Lydia and Kitty.
Their rivalries, frustrations, and critiques along with mutual affection, protection, and support illuminate a timeless truth about siblinghood: Growing up together offers no guarantees of shared mannerisms, behaviors, or even values. But the bonds among siblings are not so easily broken.
Sally Allen is the founder and editor of Books, Ink