|I realize that While My Sister Sleeps came out in hardback last year and that the paperback version was published a few weeks ago. But the book is still on the shelves here in Cape May County where one turns to K-Mart, Walmart or the grocery store for new releases. (I love living at the shore but I do miss my Borders.) So since the need to buy a book – any book – overtook me at the Acme last week, I picked this one up. A couple days later I began reading it, simply because it was sitting on the counter next to me. It was nearly midnight when I finally closed the book and there were tears in my eyes and a satisfied smile on my face. This is a very good book.
Barbara Delinsky’s roots are in romance, but she began to move women’s fiction over a decade ago, although most of her books have at least some romantic element. The first of her novels that I reviewed, in 1997, was A Woman’s Place, the story of a successful business owner who almost lost her family because of prejudice against a woman who had challenged traditional gender roles. (And yes, this did not seem improbable a mere 13 years ago.) I gave it five hearts. While My Sister Sleeps likewise deals with a pressing social issue: how does a family deal with accepting that a daughter/sister is brain dead but still breathing. How do you let go? And this one earns five hearts too.
Robin Snow is a star, a marathoner who has won big races and is the hope of the American team for the upcoming Olympics. She has appeared in People, in Runners World, in newspapers both local and national. For two decades, the Snow family has revolved around Robin and her career. Molly is the younger sister, the steady one who studied horticulture so she could contribute to the Snow’s successful nursery business. She is the dependable one, who has been there to hand her sister water, to time her, to keep her life in order.
One day, while her parents are out of town, a business meeting keeps Molly from accompanying Robin on her daily run. She arrives home to the house they share and receives a phone call from the local hospital. Robin is in the emergency room. Molly assumes it is nothing major and doesn’t rush to Robin’s side. But when she gets there fifteen minutes later, she learns the dreadful truth: Robin has had a heart attack and while the runner who found her called for help and administered CPR, her brain was without oxygen for much too long. Only the ventilator is keeping her alive.
Delinsky portrays the effects of this tragedy on the family with great skill and empathy. Molly, the protagonist, is filled with guilt. If she had just gone with her sister, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. (Although Molly would have not been with her sister when the attack occurred and could not have known that Robin was in trouble.) Molly has always been understandably jealous of the apparent favoritism their mother has shown to her talented sister. This only adds to her guilt.
Kathryn, the mother, simply cannot accept that this has happened. Surely her Robin, who has always risen to every challenge, will wake up and everything will be as it should be. She simply does not want to believe the truth, does not want to know the truth. Charlie, the quiet, reliable father, will support his wife, but knows in his heart that Robin is gone. Chris, the brother and middle child, simply cannot cope with this tragedy, any more than he can cope with the complexities of his own marriage.
As Kathryn spends hours at her daughter’s bedside, it is left to Molly to deal with both her own feelings and the circumstances. She uncovers a sister she didn’t know as well as she thought and secrets that have been kept hidden for over thirty years. She also meets the good Samaritan who tried but couldn’t save her sister, someone who can understand her own ambivalent feelings. And she learns to value both her sister and herself.
It is impossible is a review to describe the intricacies of the story and the relationships that Delinsky develops. Suffice it to say that While My Sister Sleeps is a well-told and compelling tale that describes the emotional toll that a family tragedy takes as well as the possibility for growth and reconciliation that such a sad event can create. If one suspects that in too many cases, things do not end so satisfactorily, one finishes this book convinced that for the fictional Snows at least, this is the way it is. And this is Delinsky’s talent, that you believe in her characters and in her stories.