27th Apr 2011
The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen
Rebecca Rasmussen is a teacher of creative writing in St Louis, Missouri. Her début novel, The Bird Sisters, was inspired by her grandmother’s journal. Rasmussen learned of family tragedy, but also of her ancestors’ hopes and dreams, and the details of their daily lives.
Her grandmother had a sister, but in later years, they drifted apart. With The Bird Sisters, Rasmussen imagines how their fates might have played out if they had never left their childhood home in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
The novel begins in the present, with two aged sisters still together in the house where they were born. Over the course of a routine day, the narrative flashes back to the summer of 1947. Dreamy, romantic Milly and her younger sister, the outspoken, independent Twiss, could hardly be more different.
Their parents are also at odds, and the marriage is strained. Their mother, a former débutante, wishes she could visit Paris again, while their father spends most of his time playing golf.
When their feisty cousin, Bett, comes to stay, the household’s delicate balance is disturbed. Twiss discovers a kindred spirit, and Milly is left in the cold. Their parents’ relationship begins to crumble.
But there are lighter moments as well. Rasmussen builds a picture of rural life and eccentricity, the backdrop of Wisconsin River Valley, and solidarity between women in an age before modern feminism gained ground.
Rasmussen’s title refers to the sisters’ skill at healing wounded birds. The novel is at its most appealing during the descriptive passages, recreating the customs and rituals of a bygone era with obvious affection.
The Bird Sisters is a good-natured novel, and I think many readers will enjoy its folksy nostalgia and sentimental whimsy. But although the novel has plenty of polish, the characters seemed under-developed and the plot didn’t carry much dramatic force. At times, the dialogue and internal monologues seemed a little obvious and distracting.
Rasmussen has clearly studied her craft and it shows, but after a few chapters I was wishing she had taken more risks. The Bird Sisters is a comforting, easy read, and charming in its way, but soon forgotten – unless, of course, you’re from Wisconsin.
Recommended for: Fans of upmarket chick-lit and nostalgic Americana.