A quick glance at the cover of this book and its strapline, "Family, Forgiveness and Cupcakes - a recipe for a story you won't forget" and I thought I knew what to expect - frivolous, lightweight, chirpy chicklit. The blurb on the back of the books tells us it's a book that will make us laugh and cry, but how many times have I read that and then sat stony-faced as I read the book cover to cover ?
Well, this book sneaks up behind you with a crafty unexpected punch to the guts ! I had to stop reading it on the bus on the way to work in the morning because people were giving me funny looks when I grinned and I felt embarrassed on a couple of occasions when I could actually feel my eyes tearing up !
It is a book that will appeal mainly to women so yes, it is chicklit. But it's also one powerful novel. Twins Isabelle and Cecilia and their sister Janie are happily (or unhappily) getting on with their quiet (or not so quiet) little lives when a bombshell arrives in the form of a little slip of pink paper from their mum, informing them that she has to go to hospital for open heart surgery and that they need to come and take care of their brother, Henry. Described by their mum very cruelly but also -if we're honest - pretty accurately as the slutty one (Isabelle), the fat one (Cecilia) and the wacko one (Janie), the girls already give the author a lot to work with. But Henry is special - he's mentally disabled, but he's also the sanest, most grounded member of the whole family !
Every single one of the central characters is deeply flawed but totally loveable. Mixing humour and sadness, the author reveals their quirkiness and eccentricities but also the tragic tales of the past that explain these personality flaws. Just by themselves, the Bommarito family would keep Jerry Springer in employment for eternity ! Abusive husbands, rape, extreme poverty, bulimia, obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression - the girls have been through some severely dark times. But what doesn't break you can only make you stronger and they come through as survivors, fit to take on whatever the world can throw at them. And it still has a lot to throw at them.
Even the supporting cast of minor characters are deliciously unusual and will win over your hearts - especially the cunning mum River who sacrificed so much for her family, the Vietnam vet dad and the adorable granny with Alzheimer's who thinks she's the pilot Amelia Earhart. This would make a fantastic movie, along the lines of Little Miss Sunshine, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe or Steel Magnolias. If the right actors were picked, there would definitely be a few Oscar-nominations in the bag !
Henry's Sisters is a fantastic read, and I would defy you to read it without cracking a smile and shedding a tear. By turns poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, it is an empowering tale that will stay with you long after you've read the final words.
star rating : 5/5
RRP : £7.99
Paperback: 512 pages
Publisher: Allison & Busby (5 April 2010)