The cover of Norwich author Katharine Britton’s debut novel, Her Sister’s Shadow, might as well say “women’s commercial fiction” all over it. A damsel in a filmy skirt prowls the misty seaside, her posture suggesting she’s contemplating difficult life choices, or perhaps a new feminine-product line.
But, while Britton tells a story that Nicholas Sparks fans may enjoy, her novel isn’t flimsy fare about a sylph in love. When we meet its heroine, Lilli Niles, she’s 58 years old, and the object of her long-ago first love is dead. Her life choices have all been made, or so it seems, but she’s never faced her regrets.
A successful artist and gallery owner in London, Lilli returns home to the Massachusetts coast to attend the funeral of her older sister Bea’s husband, Randall Marsh. She hasn’t seen him, her sister or their childhood home for 40 years, for reasons that slowly emerge from extended flashbacks. While Lilli grapples with the past, she also tries to figure out a future for Bea — once a bossy perfectionist and sailing champ who raised her younger sisters with an iron hand, now a 67-year-old widow struggling with incipient dementia.
Britton’s storytelling and descriptive powers come most alive in her flashbacks to the late ’60s. The details of the four Niles sisters’ country-club-bohemian lifestyle (their father was a Boston brahmin, their mother an artist) are sharply observed, and their coastal home, jam-packed with undiscarded oddments and shrouded in mist and memories, soon becomes a character in its own right. A site of family tragedies, it seems to exert an enchantment over Bea and Randall, who settled down among the ghosts and never left; and, from afar, over Lilli, who fears to return.
Britton shows how a few years’ worth of powerful, unresolved conflicts can cast a shadow over a person’s subsequent life; frail as Bea is, the adult Lilli still smarts at her disapproval. But the author also impoverishes Lilli as a character by giving us barely a glimpse of her last four decades. We know she owns a tony AGA range and lives in Hampstead, but not whether she’s experienced love or friendship or pleasure in her art that could compete with her early affections. Returning home, she almost seems to be an adolescent coming out of cold storage.
With its moody meditations on the past, the novel may occasionally make readers feel like Charlotte, the most down-to-earth Niles sister — who, when teenage Lilli tries to tell her about her feelings, pats her on the back and says, with gravitas and certainty, “You need a toasted cheese sandwich.” Powerful as romantic love is, Britton suggests, the bonds of sisterhood — prosaic advice, cheese sandwiches and all — can endure far longer.
"Her Sister’s Shadow" by Katharine Britton, Berkley Books, 341 pages. $15.