there’s no way to the heart better than awkwardly

17Jan09
It is often a struggle for me to have a sister that I care adamantly for. I frequently find myself wanting to make decisions for her, even knowing that the choices I would have her make would sometimes make her unhappy, and that is unfair. As it is, she has recently made the life-changing decision to leave New Mexico to its deserts and mountains, and come home to Cincinnati.

Which is why, after two years of relentless pleading on her part, I have finally bought a plane ticket to Albuquerque for a weekend of skiing at the end of the month. As she’s leaving New Mexico the first weekend in March, and I’ve been promising her a visit, and she called this morning to tell me flights were surprisingly cheap, I went ahead and booked the trip. I haven’t skied in several years, so if nothing else, it should certainly be an entertaining weekend for her. For me, it will just be very nice to see her again.

A few weeks ago, in the post-holiday slump at work, Katie emailed me with the idea of starting a book club. I think she might have been joking, but I jumped at the idea of reading the same books and having a running electronic discussion of them. I bought her Twilight for Christmas, so our first go-round was about that. But as I’d already read it (and reread it, and reread it again–okay, I’m lame, stfu), I decided to look around for something else to read while she finished it.

She had been reading a book called The Last Summer (of You & Me) while we were home over Christmas, and I was intriqued. She had said it was a little slow, but pretty good. I’m not normally the chick-lit, beach-read kind of girl, so I was hesitant, but I have a very big soft spot for novels about families, and novels about sisters in particular. (As it happens, it was not chick-lit; it was pure literature.)

I was at Borders on Thursday night looking for a book I’d seen in their e-newsletter that morning. They didn’t have it in-stock, but, being me, I almost unequivocally refuse to leave a bookstore empty-handed. The Last Summer (of You & Me) was featured by itself in front of the fiction area, and I had barely read the back cover before I found myself in line to buy it.

It’s pretty telling to say that I was crying by the end of the first chapter. (And the book doesn’t actually get sad until about halfway in.) Ann Brashares has a very, very unique style. She’s all about characterization and detail. In a way, the book does move slowly, but the lack of action is totally made up for by the incredibly insightful trio of narrators. Their voices are in some ways almost indistinguishable; the tone is very consistent, even though the story is told from three different points-of-view. But the characters–Alice, Riley, and Paul–each have their own subtly different way of looking at things, at explaining things.

Brashares’s writing is heartbreaking in its insight; she writes with almost self-reflective sincerity. She writes about love and family and sisters and life with such grace that just getting through one chapter without tears was a challenge. I’m a fairly affectable person already, but for a book to almost crush me with its emotional weight takes a great deal of effort on the author’s behalf. Most books leave some kind of emotional scar on me, but The Last Summer was something else altogether. It was brutal, it was true, it was real, and it was impossibly sad, but it managed to be all of those things without ever being trite or sentimental.

As a general rule, I do not write in, underline, or highlight my books. Books are absolutely sacred to me, so much so that I still use actual bookmarks rather than bend the pages over, in order that their condition not be marred or damaged. But this book was different. Not that I felt any less aversion to marking it or folding it, but that I found so many lines worth loving that I was worried I’d never be able to find them again if I let them pass without indication.

I don’t know if any of these lines will mean much to anyone but me, but because I saw so much of myself in Alice, and so much of my own sister in Riley, I can’t help but share them with someone.

Alice was happy in her tide pool. But as she watched them pulling off T-shirts and wading in, out seeped the old fear, the younger-sister fear, that they would leave her out if she couldn’t keep up. It was a fear more basic than that of sharks and wrenching currents and all the unnameable mysteries of the ocean at night, though it did not exclude them.

She wanted to be Riley, but she feared she was her mother.

Let me love you, but don’t love me back. Do love me and let me hate you for a while. Let me feel like I have some control, because I know I never do.

She didn’t like people’s secrets. She didn’t want to find out things she shouldn’t know.

Alice had long been conditioned to feel lucky when she got Riley to herself.

If she couldn’t say it to Riley, then she shouldn’t have done it.

She looked back longingly on the time when she and Riley had twin beds with matching wildlife bedspreads and talked in the dark before falling asleep.

It was a sad version of ambition, to want not to stand out but to fit in.

…Alice sat in the kitchen alone and noticed things she hardly saw anymore…There was love expressed in the places you usually forgot to look.

It was sometimes a hardship having a beautiful sister, but there was no joy in having her look bad.

She would have given whatever gifts she had to Riley if she could’ve. And if she couldn’t, she would pretend for both of their sakes that she didn’t have them.

She could never keep up with them. She was always left out. As soon as she caught on to the game, they moved to the next one.

“When you came along, I said I’d share you, but I told him to remember that you’re my sister. I loved you first.”

The idea of love was always easier than the practice of it.

There are several dozen more lines from this book that had me curling into myself and wanting very badly to be near to my own sister. I’ve spent most of my life idealizing and idolizing her, it was nice to know that other younger sisters (even fictional younger sisters) have spent their lives doing the same.

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5 Responses to “there’s no way to the heart better than awkwardly”

  1. 1 caseyadam

    Very open. Well written.

  2. Well, this post kinda reduced me to tears… I’d really like to read the book, and will add it to my list.

  3. 3 Katie

    Thanks Whit. I’m crying. I also found many great lines in that book. I’m curious to know what else you highlighted.
    I can’t wait to ski with you!! We’re gonna have so much fun. TREE SKIING!!!!

  4. 4 Mom

    Tears are flowing….I’m a very fortunate mom to have two daughters who truly love each other. Always keep it that way……

    Love,

    Mom

  5. This was a very strange book, for me. I spent about the first half going “wha..?” and wondering what the fuss was about but then… yes. A devastating book. The first hundred pages took me a week to read, and the rest I stayed up until the wee hours to finish.

    I suspect there’s a whole other level to it if you are the little sister, and even though I’m certainly not a Riley and MC is nothing like an Alice I will be forcing my copy on her before she leaves for her big European adventure.


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