Themes

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

Despite the grim premise and the repeated assertion that their father's acts ruined each woman's life, the novel's theme is positive. Stephen's many marriages and his deliberate acts to isolate them meant the sisters grew up apart. In the case of Elizabeth and Mary, they knew one another but each...

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Despite the grim premise and the repeated assertion that their father's acts ruined each woman's life, the novel's theme is positive. Stephen's many marriages and his deliberate acts to isolate them meant the sisters grew up apart. In the case of Elizabeth and Mary, they knew one another but each was full of envy of the other. Yet when the women meet as adults, their individual, cautious revelations and honest reactions to each other gradually overcome their suspicion. The four have vastly different incomes, lifestyles, and sexual or marital status, the signals by which the outside world most often judges and classifies women. But their bond of blood and shared experiences ultimately leads to mutual love.

Stephen's mechanisms of control: secrecy, rage, isolation, power plays backed with money, are defeated once their objects start talking to one another honestly. His death, once his daughters bluntly confront him as a united group, frees them to grow into the women they should have been all along.

After a dramatic Christmas Day argument in which each woman retreats to her own past values and coping mechanisms, they back off and reevaluate. The book ends with the sisters making plans for going on with their lives. But each woman knows she will never be quite so alone again; she has sisters who can help her get through the rough spots and night terrors. 'Sisterhood is powerful' is thus true literally as well as metaphorically.

Yet calling either sisterhood or self-revelation the key to the problems of patriarchy would oversimplify the book's theme. Certainly both concepts have been important in the women's movement and its analysis of the ills of society, but at best they are partial, coping strategies. The Upton sisters' way is also eased by the money that Stephen leaves them, money that has given authority without responsibility to males of the family in the past.

In this, her fourth novel, French offers modulated hope for reform. Individual life changes and wholeness are attainable, although difficult. Social change can only be encouraged through partial, microactions. Alex's and Ronalda's future plans would seem to support this reading. Alex, whose children no longer need her so much, is going to use her money to set up a rural hospital in El Salvador. Ronalda will resume work on her degree in environmental studies, hoping more respect for nature will help make a better world.

Controversy stalks the public discussion of childhood incest, especially the recovered memories issue. French's thematic treatment here does not exactly match the terms of the public debate. The book shows that such incest has cultural and societal roots, going all the way back to Old Testament morality which made an unmarried daughter's sexuality her father's property. This is in opposition to recovered-memories therapy, which finds causes within the individual family and tends to hold other family members who do not stop the incest equally culpable. The novel illuminates the power imbalances which keep them from doing so.

Yet one of the daughters, Alex, has lost most of her childhood memories. Alex's mother was also the only one to learn about the incest. She left and removed the little girl from the situation, although in later years she refuses to talk about it. Aside from the memory gaps, however, Alex appears to be the most normal of any of the sisters. The chain of events is more complex than in the public debate. The novel shows the complexity of the issue well, and at the same time presents a coherent ideology to account for it.

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