Angel Falls

Distant Shores

On Mystic Lake

Summer Island

Between Sisters by Kristin Hannah
(Ballantine, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-345-45073-6
I’ve accepted the fact that Kristin Hannah now writes melodramatic Women’s Fiction instead of the historical romance with a paranormal twist that made her early novels so enjoyable. What I can’t accept is when she writes boring melodramatic Women’s Fiction. Last year’s Distant Shores was the nadir of her career, a predictable soaper with a tearful heroine that read like an anemic “Can This Marriage Be Saved” column. Between Sisters is a vast improvement. The melodrama is still present but at least the characters show a bit of spark, and the plot, while obvious, takes a few interesting twists and turns before it reaches its foregone conclusion.

We met Meghann Dontess in Distant Shores - she was the weepy heroine’s slutty best friend. Apparently Hannah decided we deserved to know the story behind the slut - why the 42 year old successful divorce attorney engages in numerous one-night stands and keeps everyone, even her therapist, at a safe emotional distance. She may be a bitch, but she’s a bitch in pain.

The key, of course, is Meghann’s childhood. As the elder of two half-sisters, she served as the mother figure to Claire while their Mama neglected them in her self-absorbed attempts to become an actress. When Claire was 9 and Meg was 16, a traumatic incident finally forced Meg to locate Claire’s biological father. At that point, they separated. Meg became an overachieving student and then attorney in Seattle, while Claire became a small-town single mother who helps her father run a small camping resort in the mountains of Washington. Their relationship now is strained and distant; Claire considers Meg a judgmental snob, and Meg looks down on Claire because she doesn’t have a college degree or fancy job. But are these accurate assessments? The past has come “Between Sisters,” and they can’t reclaim the closeness they had as children.

But then a near-tragedy on the job forces Meg to reluctantly take a long vacation. At the same time, Claire falls head-over-heels in love and starts planning a wedding with the man she just met a few weeks ago. Meg immediately charges into Claire’s hometown to stop her sister’s impetuous and ill-advised marriage. But Claire’s impending wedding may be the catalyst for the sisters to finally talk about the events that caused their rift, and to relinquish the hurt and anger that they’ve carried for so long. Meg’s intrusion into Claire’s life also introduces Meg to Joe, a drifter who’s even more tormented than Meg. Another one-night stand between two people who have nothing left to give, or a chance for redemption for both? Nothing is certain, especially when a major medical crisis leaves Meg and Claire with the sobering realization that their reconciliation may be too late.

The first 300 pages of the novel are compelling drama. Meg is a difficult, prickly character but the reader knows that her distancing behavior covers deep insecurities and fears, and that she’s really a decent person because she took care of her little sister. You can see her inner struggles during the compelling scenes portraying her in action as a divorce attorney. It would have been easy to make Meg the Bad Girl and Claire the Angel (one’s a brunette, one’s a blonde, I’ll let you guess which is which), but Claire isn’t perfect either; she’s an underachieving college drop-out and a single mother. The sisters may both wallow in the past, but the dynamics of their relationship and gradual reconciliation ring true.

Too bad Hannah has to drop a stink bomb into the novel’s last 100 pages. I won’t reveal all, I will just say that a major character’s headaches foreshadow a good old fashioned tear-jerker melodrama hospital scene complete with out-of-body near-death experiences (but, thankfully, a happy ending). I would have preferred the story without this heavy-handed plot, but it links with Joe, Meg’s fling who can’t be dismissed as easily as her usual boy toys.

Speaking of Joe, he is so tormented by past tragedies that Hannah should have given him a hair shirt. His relationship with Meg has passion and chemistry, but their limited interactions leave the reader unconvinced that they have a future together. Likewise, Claire’s headlong dive into love and marriage occurs so abruptly that there’s no time to savor a budding romance.

Bottom line: good relationship drama, a little too much tear-jerking, mediocre love stories, strong writing throughout as you would expect from this author. It still isn’t the Kristin Hannah I once loved, but it’s one of the better novels from this phase of her career. By the way, Hannah’s second novel, 1992’s The Enchantment, has just been re-released in paperback by Ballantine. It’s one of my favorites, featuring a rare virgin professor hero and experienced, cynical heroine in a late 19th century historical setting. At only $3.99, it’s a bargain.

--Susan Scribner

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