Thursday, January 7, 2010

42. Invisible Sisters: A Memoir by Jessica Handler

I saw Invisible Sisters on the new non-fiction shelf at my library, read the book jacket, and decided to check it out. As it turns out, I misread the book jacket. I thought this was a memoir about two sisters, one of whom was sick and one of whom was not. It's actually about three sisters, two of whom are sick and one who is not. Being the youngest of three sisters, I felt nervous about reading this book once I read the book jacket properly. I didn't want to start imagining scenarios in which my sisters became sick and were taken away from me. So it was with slight dread that I started reading.

Jessica Handler recounts growing up with her mother, father and two younger sisters, Susie and Sarah, in Invisible Sisters. Susie is diagnosed with leukemia at age eight. Sarah suffers from symptoms of Kostmann's syndrome from birth. At one point, Jessica found herself clarifying her status to a nurse, "I'm the well sister." Jessica's family soon becomes accustomed to illness; their family is doctor is also a close family friend, calls and visits to the hospital are routine. Sarah has to learn to swallow pills as a toddler, and all of the sisters practice with candy. Things begin to fall apart when Susie passes away after two years of treatment. The remaining family members don't quite know how to deal with their grief individually or as a group. Jessica's father begins a slow decline into addiction and estrangement from the family, and Jessica herself experiments with alcohol and drugs as a teen. Sarah lives until the age of 27, at which point she succumbs to her illness. Jessica is left the sole surviving sister, haunted by her "invisible sisters" and fantasies of memories they could have made together with their children, had Susie and Sarah lived. Jessica eventually reconciles with her father, forgiving him for past mistakes, and marries in her hometown of Atlanta.

I'm going to start my response to this book with a quote from the About Me section of my sister Mollie's blog:

"The oldest of three sisters, I am somehow always aware of how similar and different we are from each other, and that no one can really know me without knowing them."

I really couldn't have put it better myself. From the day I was born, I was part of a set. The three of us are still known as The Sullivan Girls in some circles. Although Jessica writes eloquently about her experiences, I still can't quite imagine my life if Mollie or Annie had become sick or passed away. I don't want to think about. We still have our whole lives ahead of us, Mollie is getting married this year and none of us are mothers yet. And we're each older than Sarah Handler was when she died. I left the book feeling shaken and sad, but above all incredibly, effing lucky.

This memoir is very well-written and incredibly moving. Even though I was scared to read it and I still don't want to put myself in Handler's shoes, I read the book in one sitting and then felt very appreciative of all that I have. I would definitely recommend it anyone.


Mollie said...

I would have been freaked out to read that book too, especially as the oldest! Thank goodness we're all well, and like you said, with our whole lives in front of us. Maybe that dream I had in which we all were pregnant at the same time will come true!

Magnolia said...

Maybe!!! We could have one huge, joint baby shower! :)

jessica handler said...

Thank you so much for your kind and honest words about my book, and I hope Mollie's dream *does* come true!

I value thoughtful and brave readers like you!

Happy New Year!

Magnolia said...

Jessica, thank you so much for taking the time to read this post! I can't tell you what a thrill it is to read your comment.