Oma fills Rose’s head with tales of “mares,” people who can shape-shift into other creatures, and cause great havoc as changelings.
Tales of generations-long secrets always captivate us. The surging interest in Ancestry.com makes us want to uncover our bloodlines: Where did we come from? Who were those people who came before us? What did they do? What were they like? And, perhaps most intriguing: What erroneous beliefs have we held our whole lives, only to find out we’ve been wrong all along?
Noted suspense writer Jennifer McMahon tackles these mysteries in her latest novel, The Night Sister, now in paperback. The book alternates between three time periods—1955/1961, 1989, and 2013—and, essentially, three generations. The story in centered around small-town Vermont’s Tower Motel, a family-owned rural inn driven to close with the opening of a new highway. This book is the tale of three generations tied to the property. It opens in the present, at the scene of a bloody, apparent murder-suicide.
In the furthest past, mostly set in 1961, we see the world through Rose’s eyes. Rose is the homely, untalented younger sister to Sylvie, who is blond, beautiful, and an aspiring Hollywood actress. The only glimpses of Sylvie’s inner world we get come through letters she writes to Alfred Hitchcock, her favorite director. The girls’ grandmother, whom they call Oma, visits occasionally, where she spends most of her time with Rose. Finally, the young girl thinks: She’s somebody’s favorite. Oma fills Rose’s head with tales of “mares,” people who can shape-shift into other creatures, and cause great havoc as changelings.
When Rose begins to notice Sylvie’s empty bed in the middle of the nights, she becomes certain her sister is a mare. Rose begins to follow Sylvie to the titular tower, intent on catching her in the act of transforming. Despite her pleas to her parents, her beliefs are summarily dismissed and Sylvie’s disdain for her sister reaches its pinnacle. One day, the family discovers a note left in Sylvie’s typewriter, saying she has gone to California to pursue her passions. Although Piper promises to write once she gets settled, she is never heard from again.
In 1989, we meet central characters Amy, Piper, Margot, and Jason, as reckless teens. Amy lives at the Motel with her grandmother; Rose, her mother, is institutionalized. Amy is a reckless girl, the kind who captivates those in her orbit, including Jason, whom she leads along in an intimate relationship, and her best friend Piper, who is convinced she is in love with Amy. Margot, Piper’s sister, is the only one who sees through Amy’s bluster and cautions her sister to be careful. Amy becomes obsessed with the mystery of Sylvie’s disappearance, as well as the rumor of a 29th room beyond the motel’s 28 guest rooms. Against orders, the girls begin to explore the crumbling Tower in an attempt to unravel the longstanding family mystery.
In present day, Amy is married with two children, Margot and Jason are expecting their first child, and Piper has left Vermont far behind. Jason is called to the Tower Motel, where Amy, her husband, and her son lie in pools of blood, dead from gunshot wounds. What led Amy to kill her family and herself? How bad did things get? Jason discovers Amy’s daughter Lou huddled on the roof, just outside the window; miraculously, the girl had managed to escape. Piper forms a friendship with the young girl, taking care of her when Lou’s aunt, her only living relative, abandons the girl.
Next to Amy’s body is a photograph of the young sisters, Rose and Sylvie. At the bottom, Amy had scrawled “29th Room.” But what does that mean?
Gradually, over the span of decades, McMahon unravels the mystery. We tag along with Rose, Piper, Amy, and Jason as they explore and question and discover. Ultimately, the story builds to present-day danger and revelations that, unless you are familiar with McMahon or know something about this book going in (as I did not), may or may not surprise you.
These characters are ones you care about. Even petty young Rose and risk-taking adolescent Amy are relatable and sympathetic. It’s a page-turner, to be sure, with dark, shadowy overtones from page one. Family secrets plus a murder mystery; what more could you ask for? | Laura Hamlett