Two sisters, once close, take off from New York City for a monthlong vacation to Sunshine Falls, NC, the setting for a book by one of their favorite novelists. The younger sister, Libby, carries a checklist of activities for stepping out of their comfort zones. The two lost their single mom and Nora took on a mothering role. Nora admits she is set in her ways – orderly, demanding, grouchy – and she regularly procrastinates on her promise to start becoming “another Nora.” Nora tries to protect, pretending all is okay or fixing problems without Libby knowing: “I always want her to have everything she wants “– and a ‘tiny controlled version of things,” “the mess of it,” “all spills loose.”
Both keep secrets, even lying in the effort not to alarm the other, and Nora, a book agent, admits: “I feel that heart-pinch sensation, like I’m missing her, like all our best moments are behind us.” She should wait until they are in their 50s or 60s. She tries to shape their lives like the stories she reads before sending them off for publishers. “Decisions, memories, activities are like constructing a story. “That’s life. You’re always making decisions, taking paths that lead you away from the rest before you can see where they end. Maybe that’s why we as a species love stories so much. All those chances for do-overs, opportunities to live the lives we’ll never have.” For Nora, her favorite books never offer the ending she wants, with characters confronting both loss and hope. Expecting another end is “a way to lose something you’ve never even had.”
The sisters love each other and seek control like inept mothers, trying to make another human being happy by deeming to know what is best. But the problem with that control is that neither is pleased with the results. Sisters can be very, very different, and each must learn to live with that.
The problem with small towns is apparent for Nora: “One minor lapse in judgment and you can’t go a mile without running into it.” The closeness forces people to get to know one another and puts most on their best behavior. The two main characters are exceedingly cautious. Lengthy, quippy, contrived conversations prevent the couple from tackling topics with depth with constant interruptions for intimate or tough moments. At one point, Nora reflects that “Some books you don’t read so much as live.” Sadly, the dialogue gets in the way, taking on a stilted, tiresome quality, with characters, especially the editors, in the bad habit of mentally reassessing each comment and joke. Rather than relax, accept and enjoy time together, the couple obsesses about being viewed as boring, with one recalling a breakup line from the past: “If we stay together, every single day for the rest of our lives is going to be the same.”
Nora works while on vacation on the author’s next book, featuring an agent who resembles Nora – a mean shark of a woman who is also “Tired, lonely, no real life.” And Nora increasingly worries about the distance and secrets and what her sister really thinks of her. “It’s one thing to accept that the person I love most is fundamentally unknowable to me; it’s another to accept that she doesn’t quite see me either. She doesn’t trust me, not enough to share what’s going on, not enough to lean on me or let me comfort her.” Nora comes to realize that the younger sister's memories of childhood are more painful than pleasant, including one when their mother broke down at a cash register because she could not afford a lime to make the girl’s favorite cookies. Memories, the narrative of childhood whether accurate or not, shape our moods, character and ambitions.
I often advised students in a communications class taught to craft their lives and careers the way a writer selects details for a story. Consider the choices, aware of new paths and opportunities. Be prepared to adjust and revise. Build a set of memories and relationships to avoid dwelling on a life that could have been lived.