Book Review of “Winter Sisters” by Robin Oliveira.
When a blizzard of epic proportions hits the northeast of America in January 1879, creating both havoc and devastation for the city of Albany, New York, one part of the damage is the disappearance of the young sisters Emma and Claire O’Donnell. After finding the bodies of these girls’ parents, Dr. Mary Stipp (the famous Civil War surgeon, previously known as Dr. Mary Sutter), refuses to believe these girls are dead, and keeps up the search. Not long after all hope was lost, the two girls show up in the wake of a flood, and the story of what happened to them while they were missing threatens the whole city.
This is one of the books I took on to read and review for the website Book Browse, and to be honest, it was my second choice, but now I’m glad that my request for the other book fell through. This is the first of Oliveira’s books I’ve read, but the novel “My Name is Mary Sutter” has shown up on my radar for a long while. Apparently, this book is somewhat of a sequel to that one, which was published in 2010. I say ‘somewhat’ because from what I can tell, while many of the characters from the previous novel were brought forward for this one, I truly feel that this book stands alone, which is certainly to its credit. Of course, now my interest is piqued to read the previous book, since I truly appreciated the character of Mary Stipp (nee, Sutter), and would love to read a book that focuses primarily on her.
That alone could be considered a very high recommendation, and for the most part, it is. That said, I should mention that there were two things that didn’t sit totally right with me with this novel. To begin with, I felt the start of this book dragged just a little bit. This could be because I really wanted to hear something about these two girls, and Oliveira held off giving anything away about them for some time. I’m unsure how Oliveira could have fixed this, unless she advanced one of the chapters with the girls just a little bit closer to the start of the story. Another thing that didn’t work too well for me was the very end of this novel. To be clear, Oliveira didn’t ruin the book with a sloppy ending, but I felt that some of the things in the last chapters were unnecessary, with information that felt overly convenient in tying up any loose ends. As I’ve often said, sometimes allowing the readers to imagine what happens after the last page can make an extremely powerful ending, and I think Oliveira missed out on that here.
However, once Oliveira introduces the girls and their story, that’s when the novel really takes off. Oliveira increasingly picks up the pace and brings us a story using all the mystery/thriller mechanics available, to make us fully enraptured. Together with the drama of the blizzard and the flood, Oliveira introduces us to a large cast of characters, with various involvements with the girls and/or Mary, all of whom hand us just enough clues and send us down just the right amounts of rabbit holes to keep us turning the pages, without getting frustrated. Oliveira also gives us several climaxes, with just the right amounts of down-shifting in between, to make this story even more gripping. Now, I’m pretty good at figuring out “who done it” so when I doubt my own conclusions several times, I know the author has done a superb job in twisting their tale for me.
Oliveira’s style here is also highly appropriate for the era, using language that suggests certain levels of propriety, without any stodginess. With this, Oliveira draws this city using hints and descriptions of well-known locations to complement the characters and the story, while avoiding being overly poetic or lyrical. In addition, Oliveira seems to give each character a very unique voice, and although I sometimes mixed Claire up for Emma (although the former doesn’t say much throughout the book), I felt that Oliveira portrayed each character – both major and minor – with sensitivity and poise, and allowing the readers to emotionally connect with them all.
In short, I honestly enjoyed this novel, and found it to be exceptionally well written, with congenial characters (and detestable antagonists), and an exhilarating (if sometimes less than pleasant) story line and plot. (By the way, if Oliveira ever reads this, I’m hoping that if she decides to write a third novel, I’d like to suggest it focus on one minor character in this book – that being the particularly intriguing, and highly lovable, prostitute; I’d love to see a whole novel about her life after the incidents in this story.) Therefore, I am warmly recommending this book and think it deserves a solid four out of five stars.
Viking Press (Penguin Group) released “Winter Sisters” by Robin Oliveira on February 27, 2018. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.