Barbara Delinsky, HarperCollins, 2009
While My Sister Sleeps is an emotionally charged story of a family’s difficult decision about when is the right time to turn off the life support machine. After her elder sister, Robin suffers a heart attack and drifts in to a coma, Molly, the main character is propelled into a more central and respected role within the family as they all struggle to cope.
The sensitive issues surrounding the difficulties of if and when to turn off your loved one’s life support is handled well throughout this book, and with great delicacy. It’s a thought-provoking subject that the author raises and one that stays with you for some time, although, as with any Jodi Picoult book of a similar vein, the backbone of the novel also becomes its downfall: in being an ‘issue’ based book that at times can feel set-up and preachy.
What I did enjoy throughout the novel was the complex relationship between the two sisters, which becomes apparent through Molly and her journey of discovery through the story, as Robin never regains consciousness. Molly has always believed that Robin enjoys the perfect life, that as her parent’s favourite and a champion marathon runner, she has it all. However, as she begins to read her sister’s diary she unveils shocking truths about how her sister actually felt about her own life, their mother, and the fact that she has an enlarged heart, a medical condition which is hereditary and that she has kept hidden.
The plot deepens when Molly, searching to understand how Robin can suffer with this medical condition when she and her brother do not, begins to unravel long buried family secrets. And those secrets reveal that the family she thought she was part of is very different from their outward appearances of reality.
An element I enjoyed was the romantic storyline, as Molly falls in love with the runner who first discovered her sister unconscious on the roadside, particularly as they suffer from a Romeo and Juliet twist, with her mother blaming him for not saving her beloved daughter. Although enjoyable at first, however, this theme does become worn and weary the more it is played out.
What was disappointing were the family dynamics set up by the author: namely a melodramatic and obsessive woman who feels more of a nuisance than a grieving mother, and a father who has little to say about anything. That in itself wouldn’t be too frustrating, but through Molly’s internal thoughts a great deal is made of her father being the strong silent type and all the hype becomes rather pointless and dull, especially as there is no sense of it leading anywhere, of it eventually being resolved.
The character’s lives cross over one another’s becoming blurry, and it is during a sub-plot connected with Molly’s love interest where it all begins to feel as if it has becomes a little too much; with a further storyline about a girl with an eating disorder. Just in the same way that Molly’s mother’s refusal to deal with her own mother’s mental decline feels as though it is one over-played, tough story line too many, that leaves the reader feeling emotionally overdrawn. Although there is a nice symmetry in the story of mothers and daughters and daughters and mothers, it becomes over-dramatic and nothing more beyond that.
Molly, though, is an interesting character, and yet sadly she never feels fully developed, whilst in contrast, Kathryn, the mother, has been overdone, and so much so that she no longer feels real, and as such becomes an abrasive annoyance.
One final complaint that I had, which has more to do with the publishers than the author, is this recent and annoying compulsion to supply the reader with a reading book guide, suggesting that should I want to discuss the issues in the book, I simply would not be up to the challenge of compiling such a list myself.
That personal complaint dealt aside, While My Sister Sleeps is a tremendously enjoyable read, satisfying to the romantics out there, and tragically sad enough to warrant a fresh box of tissues beside you at all times. However, you cannot help wishing that Delinsky had not found it necessary to tidy the story away so swiftly, so perfectly, allowing it lose all remaining possibilities for being a gritty story with an abundance of emotional depth.