“It’s not the dead who suffer. It’s the living, you see.”
The Wilding Sisters is an exceptional book that spans the lives of two families separated by decades.
In the 1950’s, we are introduced to the Wilding sisters. A group of four girls, raised by a bohemian mother in London. The highlight of their summers used to be visiting their cousin in the country and losing themselves in the magic of Applecote Manor. But tragedy strikes, and those summers come to an end. Until several years later, when their mother decides to send them back for one final summer.
Over 50 years later, Jessie, a young mother and struggling step-mother, sees the magic in Applecote Manor. She sees the crumbing estate as the chance to escape London, where her husbands deceased ex-wife holds them all hostage, especially her teenage daughter, Bella. In Applecote, she sees the chance to heal, to escape, to rebuild.
We flip back and forth in time. Margot tells us her story from the past, and Jessie from the present, but the mystery and tragedy around Audrey refuses to disappear, intertwining and impacting both womens lives. Margot wants desperately to know what happened, thinking that the answer will somehow save them all, especially her Aunt Sybil and Uncle Perry.
“For the first time since she went missing, I realize I desperately need to know the truth.”
Jessie wants the mystery and rumor of Audrey to simply go away. She is terrified that the truth will taint Applecote, thereby making the idea of uniting her family impossible. Bella clings to this mystery, obsessing over every small artifact she finds in the yard or buried within the house. Even worse, she has turned her room into a living shrine to her mother, Mandy, shocking Jessie with the totality of it. Mandy on every space on the wall. Mandy’s clothes. Mandy everywhere. Between clinging to her mother’s memory and her determination to uncover the mystery of Applecote, Bella is farther away from accepting Jessie than ever before.
“Bella’s face simply empties, and she runs upstairs, slams her bedroom door in the way only Bella can slam it, like an act of war.”
This book is quite a powerful discussion on the relationships women have with each other. Sister. Mothers. Daughters. They are all complicated and complex.
At the beginning of the summer, Margot, Flora, Pam and Dot, are a tightly knit unit. They are united against the world. But the more time they spend at Applecote starts to introduce small divisions. Secrets and unspoken changes. When two young men stroll through the meadow, the divisions become more pronounced as each sister, except Dot, see each other as competition for the first time.
The summer continues, driving the sisters further apart until a shocking turn of events forces them to decide: will they go their separate ways, or unite together again?
For Jessie and Bella, their timeline isn’t over the course of a summer, but rather a winter. The symbolism of the corresponding seasons is striking and appropriate, and I felt really highlighted the differing tensions between the relationships. Hot and passionate, versus cold and indifferent.
“She had no idea that trying to love Bella, let alone parent her as she grew into an angry teen, would be like trying to hug an animal that wanted to sink its teeth into her neck.”
The tension between Jessie and Bella is different. Bella does not want Jessie or her step-sister around. She would rather have her mother back, but in absence of that, would much prefer to simply have it be just her and her father. She is resentful and cold. But some of her behavior with her peers in London and then to her younger sister Remy are concerning to Jessie. Distrust blooms, which puts significant strain on Jessie’s marriage.
“There’s something in Bella’s gaze that is just not sisterly sometimes, not even particularly human.”
Even though there is an element of mystery, in regards to the mystery of Audrey woven between the two narratives, this really isn’t a mystery. There are parallels set up for comparison, or maybe even to simply observe, the complexity of love.
Margot and her sisters have a mother, but she is flighty and irresponsible. She is not someone seen as deserving of four daughters. In contrast, Sybil, a woman where motherhood is more natural, lost her only daughter Audrey to mysterious circumstances.
Jessie is Remy’s mother, but Bella’s mother died, unexpectedly and tragically. There is no mystery to the loss, but it doesn’t make it any easier to bear. Unlike Sybil though, who tries to find Audrey in Margot, Bella doesn’t want a replacement in Jessie. She wants less while Sybil, and even to some extent Margot, wants more.
There is also the contrast between the sisterly relationships. Margot and her sisters are an intimate tribe when they first arrive at Applecote. A unified front against the world. An oasis that they know they can always rely on. At least they were. But Harry and Tom bring out a competition never before known, and words from their mother suddenly begin to make more sense.
“Brothers always want to murder each other, Ma would shrug, It’s sisters you need to look out for. They’re the ones who can break your heart.”
It’s interesting that men are the divider in both relationships. Between the sisters, because they all want the attention that only two will win. With Bella and Jessie, they both are vying for Will’s attention. Even though Jessie still wants to mother Bella, Bella’s rejection sets the stage for them to compete. Men, both knowingly and unknowingly, are the catalyst for division.
Tragedy and shocking events also shake Jessie’s world, but it is Bella who has to decide whether she will accept Jessie or not. This acceptance is pivotal in determining the future of this small family.
Secrets and betrayals and heartbreak unfold slowly as we come to the end. And even though the timelines are decades apart, the resolution fits them all succinctly together. Questions are answered, and while some leave you reeling, they are all satisfying.
I really enjoyed reading this book. The pacing was perfect. Each chapter ended with just enough momentum that you felt the mystery building. Each story was framed to be solid on it’s own, but left enough clues that you knew they tied together, but you weren’t quite sure how. It was suspenseful without being terrifying.
The writing is breathtaking. Some sentences and passages are so beautiful they hurt.
“The dusk sky is aflame, volcanic and otherworldly, like something might actually be about to happen.”
There is magic in her descriptions. Chase captures the struggle to be a sister, a mother, a wife, in all it’s difficulty with the same lyrical precision. There is heartbreak in love. And in letting go.
Finally, I think the examination of death is one of the most captivating pieces of this novel. Not actually knowing makes Sybil and Margot hold on to Audrey. What begins as hope turns unhealthy and obsessive. A refusal to mourn and grieve. Yet Bella is dealing with the opposite. Knowing her mother is dead and refusing to move on anyway.
Life and death. Love and loss. These are complex issues that we all can relate to and identify with. I loved the story and how these issues were framed and explored. And I absolutely loved the writing. It was gorgeous. Very well done.
This book comes out July 25. Pre-Order link for Amazon is below:
Thank you so much to the First to Read program through Penguin Random House, and to Putnam books for allowing me to read this beautiful novel.