Before I start with this review, I will warn readers that there is content about sexual abuse, rape, and domestic violence. It isn’t overtly graphic, but the descriptions do not shy away from the terrible and traumatic reality these events cause. It is a highly emotional book.
“But what was gone? Gone was not buried. Gone was nothing.”
After an unexpected blizzard hits the city of Albany, Dr. Mary Stipp and her husband William find their lives profoundly impacted. Close friends of their family perished, and their two daughters are missing. The entire city, including the brash Captain Mandel, continue to tell Mary that her cause is lost and the girls are dead.
Tearing the city apart, searching everywhere they can think, including the darker, seedier underbelly of the city, the family refuses to believe they are dead. But the more time passes, the harder it is to believe they are still alive. Until another disaster strikes the city.
As the truth comes to light, it is more shocking than anyone had imagined.
“No one asked any more questions about where the girls had been since their disappearance, because the answer was obvious. Clearly, Emma and Claire O’Donnell had been residing in hell.”
The Winter Sisters is a both brutal and beautiful. On the one hand, Oliveira shows the blunt and awful truth of what life was like for women in our history. It shows their struggles and frustrations through the spectrum of the rich and poor, the advantaged and the disadvantaged, the young and the old. The way men constantly seek to undermine them, control them, use them, and even abuse them. It’s infuriating, devastating, and gut-wrenching.
On the other hand, Oliveira writes in such a vivid and beautiful way that it feels as if you’ve stepped into the past. This same skill is shown not just to scenery and atmosphere, but to the deep emotional tapestry that she weaves. She uses a scalpel to slice into the depths of our hearts but the impact hits us like an axe. Without relying on overly graphic descriptions, her writing takes the reader on a profoundly emotional journey.
“But after the war, people’s general opinion of her turned; she wasn’t quite respectable, her ambitions were unladylike, at best she was a curiosity.”
Outside of the obvious traumatic events depicted, this book is difficult to read simply for how close to the truth of our history it is. Women really were treated in these manners. Justice, law, everything was in favor of men. Especially the rich and powerful. And it isn’t just in the cases of abuse. The constant condescension Elizabeth and Mary faced, simply for being experts in their fields, for being better than some men, is appalling.
When you take that attitude towards women; however, and pair it with the more insidious plot that is actually taking place, you realize the horror that this arrogance can hide. This is a book that explores the good and bad people are capable of, and the spectrum that lies in between. For very different reasons, the good will break your heart as much as the bad. The emotional journey we embark on in The Winter Sisters is complex and deep.
“Over the years, Mary had discovered that the hardest part of being a physician was to wait for the possibility to become fact, for the corporeal to repair and declare itself, for a rested soul to emerge from a wounded body — or not.”
In the end, this is a story of resilience. It is about the power of love and the patience of healing. Most importantly, it is about the strength it takes to do good in the face of profound and terrible evil. The hard part is knowing that the type of evil we face, both in real life and in this book, exists. It existed then, and it still exists today. Which is why books like this are important. After all, if we forget our history, we are doomed to repeat it.
This isn’t a book where you close the pages and forget. The emotions you feel while reading last. We are left with a satisfying end, but the road to get there is tumultuous. Even while you rejoice in the triumph of the characters, your heart will still break for them.
The Winter Sisters exposes the tragedy of being human. How evil we can be. How good we can be. The writing is beautiful but the horrific truth it exposes is anything but. Your emotions will be pulled from one extreme to the other. Disgust. Horror. Heartbreak. Sadness. Bittersweet triumph. Oliveira exposes the harsh extent of the human condition. In the end, for better or worse, you’ll be left feeling profoundly human.
Thank you BookSparks for sending me a copy to read and review.