This is the story of 16-year-old Caro, an only child. Except she isn't an only child. She has a sister, Hannah, 11 years her senior, who left home when Caro was a child to join a contemplative order of nuns. In Caro's mind, she might as well be an only child; anyway, she likes it that way. She and her parents visited her sister once a year and spoke to her through iron bars, not unlike visiting a prisoner in jail. At least, Caro visited Hannah with her parents until she refused to go anymore.
This is the story of Hannah, who loved her much-younger little sister, who seemed inclined to prayer and devotion to God, and who has carried a much-too-heavy burden on her conscience for too long by herself. Hannah turned to the convent life in an effort to assuage her guilt and to make amends for her past.
Perhaps most importantly, this is a story of atonement.
Caro barely remembers her sister, and when pressed for information about her in grade school, she told her classmates her sister was dead; it was easier than trying to explain something she herself didn't understand. Now approaching her junior year in high school
Caro learns that Hannah has renounced her vows and is leaving the convent to return home. Caro's comfortable status as only child is about to be turned on its head.
Hannah is thrust back into a world she has effectively escaped for 8 years and must relearn skills we all take for granted: getting a drivers license, returning to the classroom, having normal conversations, getting a job. Her defense against the real world crowding in on her is to withdraw to her bedroom.
Both sisters have difficulty adjusting to the new arrangement. While Hannah makes friendly overtures to Caro in an effort to resume where they left off so many years ago, Caro has no memory of a relationship with her sister, and feels no need to resurrect it. The reader at times wants to shake Caro out of her self-centeredness and outright rude behavior, and simultaneously to push Hannah into reconstructing a life for herself. The author, however, is in no rush to tie up the plot and create a happy ending.
While the subject of religion could have gotten heavy-handed, Jarzab deals with it delicately. In spite of Hannah's years as a nun, her family could be considered “casual” Catholics. Indeed, Caro is agnostic, and upon Hannah's return home, she,too, expresses no further interest in her faith. It is Father Bob, the family priest, who seems the only person to pull Caro into meaningful discussions, and he is careful to skirt dogma. “The past doesn't disappear, but it doesn't have to define your future. That's up to you.” His words of advice are applicable to both sisters.
Caro needs to atone for her behavior toward her sister, and its ripple-effect on her relationship with her parents, boyfriend, and self-esteem. Hannah desperately needs to find atonement for a devastating incident from her childhood that drove her from her family and her former life. Atonement doesn't come quickly or easily, and the journey there is ridden with obstacles, as the sisters discover. However, arriving at the destination will be all the sweeter because of the difficulties.
This is a beautifully written story, with realistic characters and situations. Indeed, the characters and their development are what drive the plot. Offer this to readers who want a thoughtful alternative to paranormal romance and dystopian literature.
Ages 13 and up 460 pages 978-0385738361
Reviewed by Jane Behrens, Teacher Librarian, Iowa USA