Title: Invisible Sisters
Author: Jessica Handler
Published: April 13, 2009
Page Count: 272
My Rating: 4/5
When Jessica Handler was eight years old, her younger sister Susie was diagnosed with leukemia. To any family, the diagnosis would have been upending, but to the Handlers, whose youngest daughter Sarah had been born with Kostmann’s Syndrome – a congenital blood disorder so rare that it appears only in one in every two million births – it was an unimaginable verdict. By the time Jessica Handler turned nine, she had began to introduce herself as the “well sibling” and her family had begun to come apart.
Invisible Sisters is Handler’s powerfully told story of coming of age – as the daughter of progressive Jewish parents who moved south to participate in the social-justice movement of the 1960s; as a healthy sister living in the shadow of her siblings’ illnesses; and as a young woman struggling to step out of the shadow of her sisters’ deaths to find and redefine herself anew. With keen-eyed sensitivity, Handler’s brave account explores family love and loss, and what it takes not just to survive, but to keep living.
Jessica Handler has written a very powerful, different sort of memoir that I think a lot of people will relate to. Her exact story is extremely rare, of course, but many of us have lost siblings (or other close family members) in our childhoods or adult lives and can understand the pain and emptiness that comes with such a loss. Handler gives us a candid look at her family and their experiences, as well as her own thoughts as she navigates a way through life as the only healthy child in her family.
The book is written in a nonlinear fashion – time periods are mixed up, like one chapter she’ll be talking about what she was doing in her twenties and then the next she’ll be talking about her memories from when she was six or seven. This may annoy some readers, but I personally felt that it worked for the book. With so much going on in her past, telling the story along the actual continuum of her life would have required 500+ pages – the way she did it, the reader got snippets of the most important aspects of her life. For me, it worked.
I’m not going to lie, the book made me tear up in several places. I have one sister and two brothers, and imagining what my life would be like without ANY of them was extremely difficult. We may not always be best friends, but my siblings are my closest family members by blood and by memories – only they have shared certain experiences with me in my childhood, experiences that nobody else will ever be able to relate to. So as I was reading Jessica’s story, I felt so much sympathy for her – those two people, for her, are never coming back, and she has to live the rest of her life without them. I can’t imagine.
Handler’s story is an incredibly difficult one, but it is obvious from her memoir that she is a very strong person who has risen up from her past to become someone who truly cares about those around her and who tries to honor her sisters every day. Her story is told with a conversational style that most readers will enjoy. I am glad I had the opportunity to read Invisible Sisters and I absolutely recommend it.