Review – The Sullivan Sisters

Kathryn Ormsbee
Better Than I Initially Expected
(CWs Below)

Here’s a title I’ve held onto for ages. I started it, and it was edging towards a DNF (Did Not Finish), but something about it made me want to keep going. I’ve been considering what that might be in the time between finishing this book and writing this review. I think that it comes down to the genuineness of the journey of these sisters. There are aspects of all three sisters that I deeply identify with, and I get the mom’s experience too. (Single Moms Unite…) Regardless, I struggled to really get moving on this book. Here are my thoughts on why, and why it may still be a good book for you to pick up.

The book cover of The Sisters Sullivan by Kathryn Ormsbee. Set against a purple sky, the three sisters are "embeded" in a field of black and white flowers, themselves mostly drawn in black and white, except for the central girl, who has a purple jacket. The three sisters are white, dark haired on the left, blond and flowy in the middle, and demure on the right.

One thing I noticed in my years of bookselling is this propensity of publishers to swing to extremes on covers, especially on YA novels. Either the cover is fabulous, hip, and on point, or it’s … not. And the amount of NOT actively undermines the salability of the book. It’s hard to handsell a book with a bad cover. It just is. (Looking at you, movie tie-in covers – you’re not the hot stock you think you are. <.<) The Sullivan Sisters has the latter kind of cover. In this case, it’s not a bad image, at all. It just feels out of place – for whatever it’s worth, I was reminded of book covers like that of Flowers in the Attic. It’s also got nothing to do with the characters, really. It’s hard to pick out who’s who – I assume that Eileen is on the left in the stereotypical leather jacket, Claire in the stereotypical blond moment in the middle, and Murphy off on the right with her hair up and in the dark coat. Murphy is fourteen in the story, by the way.

Again, it’s not a bad image, but it is enticing to an audience that will probably not be well served by the story. It’s not dramatic romance, or high family drama, or the like. (Sarah Dessen comes to mind.) It’s a serious story, with serious issues plaguing the family as a whole. As a consequence, I don’t believe this story is for everyone. Frankly, I wonder at the story’s accessibility for young adult readers who have not “been there.”

The beginning of the story was a little rocky for me. There is a formative event, and then we are moved into the present day. Each sister is struggling with their lives in a different way, and none of them, to me, were really very compelling. I’ll avoid any plot spoilers, but something dramatic happens and the three girls are thrust into a new environment for the rest of the book. At that point the story begins to cook with more gas, and we move through each of the sisters minds as the book progresses, learning about their struggles and thought processes. Claire is trying to be a go-getter, and is smitten with the catch-phrase laden culture created by an influencer. Life throws her a major curve-ball, and she’s angry and hurt – things are not going to plan. Eileen has inadvertently learned what she feels is a dire family secret and suppresses how deeply this has affected her with alcohol. Murphy is the youngest – fourteen – and struggles with feeling invisible. From my perspective, it seems she is struggling with a little OCD and dissociation, but that’s my off the cuff read of serious issues, and may further be colored by my own life experiences. They are alone in their current predicament – set in a modern day at Christmas because their single mom is off on a cruise won in a raffle.

Perhaps it is the mom’s role in the book that was such a struggle for me. She leaves the girls at Christmas, and she has withdrawn from life so much that she fails to see the mental state of her children…I’m sure that sort of thing happens, but it just bothered me. Could she really not see these issues or did her lack of involvement merely stem from her own mental health struggles?

The story has a few plot elements that are a bit smooth and fantastical for my cynical self to find believable, but it’s a YA book, and I’m glad they are there. On the other hand, I also love that Ormsbee handles the seriousness of each character’s issue well, to my way of thinking – with compassion and realism. All these issues and the related events in this family’s lives have consequence, but there is still sunshine to be found at the end of the book, and that brought me joy.

So, ultimately, I am glad I read this book and recommend it, but with some caveats. It may be a slow start for you. And there are a lot of serious things discussed in these books, so please take care if any of these content warnings (see below) are an issue.

Content Warnings – alcoholism, drunk driving, murder, loss of a parent, poverty, bodily injury, discussions of eating/lack of eating

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