Aren’t We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson: A lesson in not judging a book by its cover

Cover imageAren’t We Sisters? put me in a bit of a quandary. The author contacted me asking if I would review her novel, not an unusual experience as I’m sure fellow book bloggers know only too well. Usually, I politely decline but she’d heard of me through a mutual acquaintance whose opinion I trust and I’d enjoyed her Orange Prize longlisted Peripheral Vision, still on my shelves which says a great deal given the overcrowding issue. So I said ‘yes’ then looked it up and saw the cover. Not my style, I thought, and after long years of reading unappealing books for work I’d vowed not to do that with this blog. What to do? Well, read it for a start and I wouldn’t have written this post if I hadn’t enjoyed it enough to recommend it to you. Phew!

Set not long after the First World War, it opens with Lettie Quick. Proud proselytiser of contraception, she’s a nurse working for Marie Stopes whose work is widely regarded as that of the devil. Lettie is smart, sharp and likes the good things in life but her judgement in men is poor. She knows it’s time to ditch her latest and when she spots a photograph of her childhood home town she decides to set up shop there. She’s soon ensconced with Norah – genteelly poor, virginal and completely ignorant of anything remotely sexual despite her thirty-six years – and not long afterwards has found herself another unsuitable man: Dr Philip Hayward, married, comfortably confident in his entitlement, ‘good at a party, good in a shipwreck’. Lettie has a sideline in discreetly delivering the children of expectant mothers who find themselves in embarrassing situations. Soon she has a rather inconvenient customer in Rae, a movie starlet installed in a crumbling old mansion, once an orphanage. Rae’s story intertwines with Lettie’s and Norah’s in what soon becomes a novel full of secrets and lies.

It took me a little while to get into this book, not because it has a slow start but because it’s busy with storylines running through its often very short chapters. Once I’d got those straight I found it quite gripping, and all the more so as the tension ratchets up. Wrapped up in what becomes a page-turning thriller is a deep concern about women’s reproductive health and sexual ignorance. For Lettie, who knows from bitter experience that it’s so rarely the case, every child should be a planned child. For Norah, even the basic mechanics of sex are a mystery. And for Rae, childbirth and how it can possibly work, is not something to be thought about no matter how imminent the birth of her baby. It’s very much about women – male characters are thin on the ground and, with two honourable exceptions, nasty or clueless. This may sound a little worthy but Ferguson’s skill and clever plotting is such that her novel is completely absorbing. Not a great cover – at least for me – but a brilliant title which proves to have a multitude of interpretations and answers.Those of you alreadyCover image acquainted with Silkhampton will know that this is a sequel to The Midwife’s Daughter but although there are clearly many references to characters in the first novel they’re handled so deftly that you don’t need to have read it to enjoy this one. If Aren’t We Sisters? is anything to go by, adapted for TV they’d both fill the Sunday night drama slot beautifully.

There’s particular scene in Aren’t We Sisters? that brought to mind Gabriel Weston’s Dirty Work, a fine novel much overlooked last year. It explores a very different present day dilemma through the experiences of an obstetrician who performs abortions – legally, of course. I’m sure Lettie would have approved despite the ethical questions it poses. How far things have progressed in the years since Marie Stopes was roundly abused on the streets of London.

14 thoughts on “Aren’t We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson: A lesson in not judging a book by its cover”

  1. Isn’t it a shame when a perfectly good book is let down by its cover image? I keep saying that I don’t get influenced by covers – but that’s usually only if I’ve already heard good things about a book. Otherwise there are certain covers which just make me hastily put a book back down again in a bookshop.

    1. Absolutely! I would never have picked this up in a bookshop. Authors must grind their teeth sometimes when they see the work they’ve invested so much of themselves in so poorly presented. One of my bugbears…

  2. I almost turned this down when I was contacted by the publicist but I kept reading the synopsis and thinking it sounded like something I might enjoy and the author had been Orange Prize listed. I’m pleased I didn’t as I really enjoyed it too. Interesting premise, good plotting, perfect for rainy Autumn Sundays, I think. And completely agree that it would make good television.

    1. Sad to think how many books slip through the cracks thanks to bad presentation. Let’s hope there’s a TV commissioning editor out there who’s read and enjoyed it.

  3. I was in a similar position with a different book which also turned out to be a good read, though haven’t yet posted my review. But your post also gave me the jitters as, before long, I’ll be the one pestering people to do reviews – though at least I have some say in my cover, perhaps I’ll need to consult book bloggers before it’s decided.
    Anyway, it sounds a really important novel – I have come across anything that theme before. I read Dirty Work before I was reviewing on my blog and was disappointed on a few levels, the one most pertinent to this post being the way the detail of the abortion was kept the end, almost as an optional extra.

    1. It’s a very tricky subject to tackle but Gabriel Weston deals with it extraordinarily well in Dirty Work, making you think from a very different point of view. Ferguson shows us what it was like in the bad old days reminding readers of how much progress has been made.

      It sounds like you’ve had some good news, Anne! When is your book due out?

  4. So agree with these comments. I reviewed Aren’t We Sisters? in The Telegraph, and even though I know how good a novelist and story-teller Patricia Ferguson is, I had to take a deep breath to get over the cover. When you know that one of the characters is an actress, it’s more understandable – but it is all wrong for the book, with its waspish wit and incisive intelligence about people and sex.

    1. And I’m afraid I think The Midwife’s Daughter jacket is even worse. It’s so important to get this right. A great disservice to writers when it’s botched.

  5. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one! I loved it and would warmly recommend it. The writing is SO much better than the cover might imply. In fact, I’ve just checked my review of this and in the comments you remember reading Peripheral Vision by the same author and enjoying it and being surprised it was the same person. That cover had you really bamboozled!

    1. It did get under my skin but covers, and their inappropriateness, are a bugbear of mine. They can make or break a book. Apparently it was the best of a very bad lot! Such a good book, too.

  6. I recall last year that Elizabeth Gilbert took issue with her publishers over their selection for the cover of The Signature of All Things. Supposedly they know best and even she isn’t influential enough to steer them in an alternative direction. However, she asked if she could let her readers decide and so three covers were put to her large reader fanbase and the result was very clear. So which one? The cover chosen by the author of course! Seems she was indeed on the same wavelength as her readers. It’s a pity they involve readers more in the selection process.

    I just noticed that my paperback version of Someone is different to yours. It’s exactly the same photo, but my cover is black and white, giving it quite a different feel tot he colour version.

    1. Wonderful story, Claire. Thanks for that. Let’s hope Gilbert’s publisher took note for future jacket decisions. And I know what you mean about the Someone jacket – I have the hardback edition which has the black and white version of the photograph, very much more in keeping with the tone and style of the book.

  7. Pingback: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher: Letters from the front | A life in books

  8. Pingback: This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (transl. Martin Aitkin): Quietly low-key but curiously gripping | A life in books

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.