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  • Written by Monica McInerney
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  • Written by Monica McInerney
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A Novel

Written by Monica McInerneyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Monica McInerney

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: May 17, 2005
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-48443-7
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

As girls growing up in Clare Valley, Australia, Anna, Bett, and Carrie Quinlan were childhood singing stars known as The Alphabet Sisters. The unbridled enthusiasm of their flamboyant grandmother Lola was the glue that held them together. As adults, though, the women haven’t spoken in years–ever since Bett’s fiancé deserted her to marry the younger Carrie. Now Lola is turning eighty and she is determined to reunite the girls for a blowout bash. And no one ever says no to Lola.

Bett, who fled to London after the scandal of losing her fiancé, is hesitant to face her sisters and her hometown–especially since she has yet to find another man. Sophisticated Anna, the eldest sister, isn’t too keen on the prospect either, though she’s secretly grateful for any excuse to leave her crumbling marriage behind in Sydney. And Carrie, who remained in Clare Valley, is perhaps the most apprehensive. Her marriage–the nominal cause of the sisters’ estrangement–is also on the rocks. Was she wrong to have followed her heart and run off with Bett’s fiancé?

When Lola shares her special request, that the girls stage a musical she has written, their short visit becomes a much longer commitment. As they are forced to spend more time together, the sisters must confront the pain that lingers between them. Preconceptions and misunderstandings are slowly put aside and the three find themselves gradually, irresistibly enveloping one another once again–until an unexpected turn of events changes everything in ways none of them could have ever imagined. . . .

Layering the lighthearted antics of small-town life with a heartbreaking story of loyalty lost and found, The Alphabet Sisters is an unforgettable story of two generations of women who learn that being true to themselves means being true to one another.

Excerpt

Chapter One

London, England

Your sister is married to your ex-fiancé?” Jessica’s voice rose to such a pitch Bett Quinlan half expected the lightbulbs to explode. “We’ve worked together for nearly two years and you tell me this now?”

Bett knew right then she had made a big mistake. “It didn’t ever really come up until now.”

“Something like that doesn’t need to come up. That’s something you tell people within minutes of meeting. ‘Hi, my name’s Bett, short for Elizabeth. I work as a journalist in a record company, and my sister is married to my ex- husband.’ ”

“Ex-fiancé,” Bett corrected. She tried to backtrack. “Look, forget I mentioned it. I’m fine about it. She’s fine about it. He’s fine about it. It’s not a big deal.” Liar, liar.

“Of course it’s a big deal. It’s a huge deal. And they’ll both be at your grandmother’s party? No wonder you’re feeling sick about it.”

“I’m not feeling sick about it. I said I was a bit nervous about going home for it, not sick.”

“Tomato, tomayto. Oh, Bett, you poor thing. Which sister was it? The older one or the younger one?”

“The younger one. Carrie.” Bett felt as if the words were being squeezed out of her.

“And what happened? Were they having an affair behind your back? You came home from work early one day and caught them at it in your marital—sorry, engagement—bed?”

“No, it wasn’t like that.” Bett stood up. She’d definitely made a mistake. That afternoon at work she’d decided to invite her friend and colleague Jessica back for dinner to tell her the whole story. She’d hoped it would help make this trip back to Australia easier. Prepare her for people’s reactions again, like a dress rehearsal. But it wasn’t helping at all. It was excruciating. She ran her fingers through her dark curls, trying to take back control of the situation. “Can I get you a coffee? Another glass of wine?”

“No thanks. Don’t change the subject, either. So did you go to the wedding?”

“Would you prefer tea?”

Jessica laughed good-naturedly. “Come on, Bett. You brought it up in the first place. Think of it as therapy. It can’t have been good for you to go around with a secret like this bottled up inside you. Did you go to the wedding?”

Bett sat down again. “I didn’t, no.”

“Well, no, of course you didn’t. It would have been too humiliating, I suppose.”

She blinked at Jessica’s bluntness.

“Did your sister use the same wedding invitations? Just cross out your name and put hers instead?”

“That’s not very funny.”

Jessica gave a sheepish smile. “Sorry, couldn’t resist. So who was the bridesmaid? Your older sister? Anna?”

“No, she wasn’t there either.”

Jessica frowned. “None of her sisters were there? What? Did it cause some huge fight between all three of you?”

In a nutshell, yes. “It was a bit like that.”

“Really? You haven’t spoken to either of your sisters since the wedding?”

“No.” Bett shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Or seen them.” Not since the weekend of the Big Fight. Which had followed the Friday of the Revelations. Which had followed the Weeks of the Suspicions. “Not for three years.”

“Your grandmother’s party will be the first time you’ve seen your sisters in three years?” At Bett’s nod, Jessica gave a long, low whistle. “This is more complicated than I thought. No wonder you went so weird when that fax from your grandmother arrived.”

“I didn’t go weird.”

“Yes, you did. Have you got any photos of your sister and your fiancé together?”

“Why? Don’t you believe me?”

“Of course I do. I just need to get the whole picture of it in my head, so I can give you all the advice you need.”

“I’d rather you didn’t—”

“Please, Bett. You know how much I love looking at photos.”

That much was true. Jessica was the only person Bett had ever met who genuinely enjoyed looking at other people’s holiday photos. She wouldn’t just flick through a packet of snaps either, but would inspect each one, asking about the subject, the setting, the film speed used.

Jessica was being her most persuasive. “I’m sure it will help you. This way I’ll know exactly who you’re talking about.”

“Thanks, anyway, but—”

“Bett, come on. You’ve told me half of it. I may as well see the rest.”

“Look, I—”

“Please-please-please . . .”

Bett gave in, picking up the small photo album lying on top of the bookcase in the corner of the room. At least it would take Jessica only a few minutes to get through them. She had left South Australia in such a hurry three years earlier that she hadn’t taken any of her photos with her. The only ones in her album were those her parents and Lola had sent with their letters.

As Jessica gleefully started turning the pages, Bett retreated to the tiny kitchen with the dirty dishes, feeling sick and steamrolled. Thirty-two years old and she still hadn’t learned how to stand up for herself. For a fleeting moment she wondered how her sisters would have reacted in the same situation. Anna would have given Jessica a haughty stare and chilled her into silence. Carrie would have tossed her blonde head and told her laughingly and charmingly to mind her own business. But not Bett. No, she’d just felt embarrassed about having said too much and then handed the photo album over anyway. She decided to blame the wine they’d had that night for this sudden need to show and tell all. Nine parts alcohol, one part truth serum.

She came back into the living room and picked up a music magazine, trying to pretend she wasn’t watching Jessica’s every reaction as she pored over each photo. For a while the only sound was pages turning, interrupted by Jessica asking the occasional question.

“Is that your mum and dad?”

Bett glanced at it. A photo of her parents, arm in arm in front of the main motel building, wearing matching Santa hats, squinting into the sunshine. They’d sent it in their Christmas card the previous year. “That’s right.”

Jessica read the sign behind them. “The Valley View Motel. Is that where you grew up?”

“We moved around a lot when we were younger, but that’s where they are now.”

Jessica nodded and turned the page. “And this is Lola? The old lady wearing too much makeup?”

Bett didn’t even have to look at the photo. “That’s her.”

“Would you look at those eyebrows! They’re like caterpillars on a trampoline. She was your nanny, did you tell me?”

“Sort of.” Nanny always seemed too mild a word to describe Lola. She’d certainly minded them as children. With their parents so occupied running the motels, it was Lola, their father’s mother, who had practically brought up Bett and her two sisters—but she was more a combination of etiquette teacher, boot-camp mistress, and musical director than nanny.

“Is she wearing fancy dress in this next photo?”

Bett glanced over. It was a picture of Lola beside her seventy-ninth birthday cake, nearly twelve months earlier. She was wearing a gaudily patterned caftan, dangling earrings, and several beaded necklaces. Nothing too out of the ordinary. “No, that’s just her.”

Jessica kept flicking the pages, and then stopped suddenly. Bett tensed, knowing she had reached Carrie and Matthew’s wedding photo. Bett had wanted to throw it away the day she received it, but had stopped herself. She hadn’t wanted her grandmother to be right. It was Lola who had sent the photo to her, enclosing a brief note: “You’ll probably get all dramatic and rip this up, but I knew you’d want to see it.”

“This is them?” Jessica asked.

“That’s them.”

Jessica studied it closely. “Carrie’s very pretty, isn’t she? And he’s a bit of a looker, too, your Matthew. Nice perm.”

At least Jessica hadn’t said what people usually said when they remarked how pretty Carrie was: “You don’t look at all alike, do you?” As for her other remark . . .

“He’s not my Matthew. And it wasn’t a perm. He’s got naturally wavy hair.”

Jessica grinned. “Just seeing if you defended him.” She turned the page and gave a loud hoot of laughter. “Now we’re talking. I’ve been dying to see proof of the Alphabet Sis- ters. Look at you with that mad head of curls.”

Bett tugged self-consciously at that same head of curls, now at least slightly less mad. Lola had sent her that photo, too. It had arrived with just a scrawled note, subtle as ever. “Re- member the good times with your sisters as well.” It had been taken at a country show in outback South Australia more than twenty years previously, at one of the Alpha- bet Sisters’ earliest singing performances. Anna had been thirteen, Bett eleven, and Carrie eight. Bett could even remember the songs: “Song Sung Blue,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and a David Cassidy pop song. Just minutes after the photo had been taken, a fly had buzzed its way straight into Anna’s mouth. Her shocked expression and sudden squawk had made Bett and Carrie laugh so much both of them had fallen off the small stage, a wide plank of wood balanced on eight milk crates. The memory could still make Bett laugh.

Jessica was inspecting it very closely. “You were a bit of a porker back then, weren’t you?”

The smile disappeared. “Well, that was nicely put, Jess, thanks.”

Jessica was unabashed. “I always believe in calling a spade a spade. And you were a plump little thing. Look at that little belly and those rosy-red cheeks.”

Bett didn’t need to look. That little belly and those rosy-red cheeks had never gone too far away. She was about to ask Jessica if she thought she was still a porker—she had gone up and down in weight so many times she hardly knew what size she was—but Jessica was too occupied with the photo. She was taking in every detail, the flicked fringes, the matching dresses, the bad makeup—all Lola’s handiwork.

She glanced up at Bett. “Not exactly the Corrs, were you?”

Bett laughed despite herself. “I bet they didn’t look that good when they were teenagers either.”

“I bet they did. Have you ever wondered if there’s a fourth Corr sister, a hideously ugly one they keep locked away?” Jessica looked at the photo again. “You’re not very alike, are you? Even apart from the appalling eye makeup and the different hair colors. Unless they’re wigs?”

“No, all our own work, I’m afraid.” Anna had straight black hair, Bett’s was dark brown, and Carrie’s dark blonde. She presumed her sisters’ hair colors hadn’t changed in three years. She’d find out soon enough. In less than two weeks, in fact. Her stomach gave a lurch.

The fax from Lola in South Australia had arrived at Bett’s work out of the blue, just the one line. If Bett didn’t come home for her eightieth birthday party, she would never talk to her again.

Bett had rung her immediately. “Lola, don’t do this to me, please,” she’d said, straight to the point as soon as her grandmother answered. “You know what it’ll be like.”

“Elizabeth Quinlan, stop being such a baby. You’re scared of seeing your sisters. So what? I’m nearly eighty, and I’ve got a lot more to be scared of than you have. I could die any moment. Now, hang up, book your ticket, and get here as soon as you can. I’ve got something I want you to do.”

Lola had obviously taken her extra-strength bossy tablets that day. “I can’t drop everything just like that, Lola. I’ve got a life here now.”

“And you’ve got a grandmother in Australia who has missed you very, very badly and wants to see you again.” Her voice had softened. “Please, Bett. Come home. For me.”

Bett had thought about it for two days, veering between excitement and dread at the idea. One image had kept coming to her. Lola, standing in front of the motel, beaming at her, waiting to give her a hug. In the end Bett had compromised. Yes, she would come back for the party, but it would be a lightning trip. She’d arrive in South Australia the day of the party and then leave as soon as possible afterward.

Lola hadn’t been at all pleased. “But I need you here for longer than that.”

“I can’t, Lola. I’ve got a life here,” she’d repeated firmly. It had been a strange sensation. She wasn’t used to standing up to her grandmother either.

Beside her, Jessica was going through the album again. “It’s a tricky one, that’s for sure. No wonder you’re so nervous. Your first meeting with your sisters and the happy couple in three years, all of you in the same motel, not to mention the added tension of a party . . .”

Bett nodded, waiting for her friend’s sound advice, the helpful comments.

Jessica shut the album with a snap. “I’d say it’s going to be ferocious.”

Sydney, Australia

Anna Quinlan knew that outside the sun was shining. That less than a kilometer away the waters of Sydney Harbour were probably glinting in the sun, to a sound track of ferry horns, gull cries, and tourist-guide commentaries.

But it could have been the Sahara Desert outside. She’d been trapped inside this coffin of a recording studio for three hours now, trying to get the voice exactly right for a new range of kitchen sponges. She’d decided the client was not just from hell, but from somewhere much deeper, hotter and even more unpleasant.

She peered through the glass of the studio window again, counting to ten as she caught sight of him. He looked like a suit-wearing spotty child who surely couldn’t have driven himself to the studio today. He didn’t seem old enough. She snapped back to attention as Bob, the producer/technician, pressed the button on the intercom so his voice came into her headphones.

“Anna, Henry feels you are really getting there, but he wonders whether you could combine the laugh in your voice from that first take with the kind of bubbling tone you did on the one before that last one, and add a little more lightness to the whole thing.”

Henry leaned forward, speaking into the microphone as though he was an MC at a football-club presentation night. “Yes, loved that bubbly sound, Anna. Just perfect for our demographic. You don’t mind, do you?”

Mind? Mind that she had spent three hours saying one sentence in dozens of different voices? Mind that the preschooler in the suit had tried to describe the mind-set of a kitchen sponge—a kitchen sponge!—to her? “It’s determined, it’s energetic, it’s fun. . . .”

No, it’s not, Henry, she’d thought. It’s a three-inch square of detergent-soaked sponge with a scouring pad on one side that you do dishes with. It isn’t Russell Crowe.

She bit her tongue. Whatever you do, Anna, don’t let them see you’re upset. Keep cool, keep smiling, keep up the front. She’d learned that lesson after years of unsuccessful auditions for parts. No one wanted a moody actress. It was much better to be tagged as a thorough professional, even if it was sometimes mistaken for haughtiness. And at least Henry had definitely decided that the sponge was female. Today’s booking had been set up, canceled, then set up again while Henry, his advertising agency, and his market-research team argued over the best gender for their new sponge.

Anna looked at Bob for help. He was just chewing, as normal, and hitching up his trousers, unfazed, also as normal. She knew he didn’t care how long the client took. He charged an hourly rate.

Some of her frustration must have shown on her face. Bob took pity on her. He spoke again, surreptitiously inclining his head toward the client. “Anna, perhaps it would help if you visualized yourself in the sink, getting psyched up to help your housewife—sorry, homemaker—clean all those dirty dishes. And there’s one particularly greasy pot that’s going to need special energy, but you know it will be worth it to scrub like mad until every spot is gone.” Another barely noticeable nod at the client. “Whenever you’re ready. Tape’s running.”

It worked a treat. Staring through the glass, seeing her sharp bobbed hair and immaculate makeup reflected back at her, Anna imagined Henry evolving into a dirty, grease-spattered saucepan. She imagined herself as the sponge, leaping out of nowhere and scouring his face until every spot and blackhead had disappeared, shouting all the while in a voice that was a combination of Mary Poppins and kamikaze pilot. She leaned toward the microphone. “Let me at it! I’m the clean machine!”

Henry’s pimply face broke into a huge smile. “That’s it. Perfect. Thanks, Anna.”

She had just leaned down to her bag when his voice came in again. “But would you be able to do it one more time? I think it needs just a touch more softness, to convey the moisturizer we’ve included in the washing-up liquid.”

An hour later Anna was driving out of the studio carpark. The voice of the sponge was now lodged in her head, and she knew from experience it would stay there for the next few days or until a new character’s voice took its place. Last month her internal voice, her mind voice, had varied between a kitten stuck up a tree (for a cat food commercial), a warmhearted nurse in an old folks’ home (health insurance), and a cake waiting to be iced. That had taken three hours to get right, too, before Bob stepped in once again with her motivation. “Imagine you’re the cake, Anna, okay? You’re scared. You don’t know which brand of icing you’re about to be iced with but you sure as hell want it to be high quality. So we need a combination of fear and anticipation and . . .”

Her seven-year-old daughter, Ellen, loved it, of course. She treated Anna’s repertoire of voices like a human jukebox. Lying sleepily in bed listening to a good-night story, she’d pick and choose the voices. “Mum, can you read this one like the Zoomer Broom?” The Zoomer Broom featured in an animated TV commercial where the ordinary household broom metamorphosed into something Harry Potter could have used for Quidditch, babbling nonsensically all the while. Ellen’s other favorite was the ocean pie, a gurgly underwater voice.

Anna parked on the street across from the hospital, ten minutes late. Hurrying toward the lift, she composed her face, already hearing the disapproving tones from her neighbor, who had grudgingly agreed to collect Ellen after school and bring her here to the clinic for her latest appointment. The lift door opened, and Anna spied her little daughter in the distance, standing up on a chair near the nurses’ station, chatting to one of the staff. In the dozens of hospital visits since Ellen’s accident, she had gotten to know all the nurses very well. Anna tensed, as she always did when she remembered the trauma of those first months. She decided it was time Ellen had a good spoiling: she’d give her whatever she wanted for dinner, let her watch whatever video she wanted, and then read her all the stories she wanted, as well.

By nine o’clock Anna’s patience was wearing a little thin. Ellen had been alternately tearful and cranky all evening, insisting on pizza, then not eating any of it, and not settling on any one video but wanting to watch specific scenes out of five different ones. Anna had finally had enough, speaking more crossly than she intended, which set off the tears again. She then read two extra stories, purely out of guilt, hardly finding the energy for the different voices. Ellen still wouldn’t settle, hopping in and out of bed. She stood in the doorway of the living room now, tears on her face. “Is Dad home yet?”

Anna kept her voice mild with effort. “No, darling, he’s not.”

“Where is he?”

“At work, I think.” She thought. She didn’t have a clue where Glenn was. He didn’t ring and tell her anymore if he was going to be late, or if he was going to be home at all, in fact.

“Can you read me another story, then?”

“Sweetheart, you’ve had enough stories. It’s time to sleep.”

“I can’t sleep. I’m scared again. I keep remembering.” The doctor’s voice came into Anna’s mind. “There will be some post-traumatic stress and recurring fear, but it’s important you learn to listen without making too much of it. Children are children and very skilled at knowing which buttons to press.” So what was she supposed to do? Ignore Ellen’s tears? Tell her to get over it? Of course she couldn’t. She pulled herself up out of the deep sofa. “All right, Ellie. You hop back into bed and pick another story. I’ll be there in a moment.”

By the time Anna got to the bedroom, Ellen had changed her mind. “Can I have a tape instead? Can I hear Really-Great-Gran’s tape?”

“Again? You sure you don’t want a story tape?”

Ellen lay back and shook her head. Her dark hair fanned out on the pillow.

The tape had arrived from Lola more than two years earlier, with a note to Anna attached. “This is for you to play to Ellen. I’m still having no part of this nonsense between you and your sisters, but I’m not losing a great-granddaughter because of it. Please play her this tape so I’m not a shock each time she meets me.”

Anna put the tape in, then lay on the bed beside Ellen, stroking her hair back from her face as Lola’s voice filled the room. Her still strongly Irish-accented tones were clear and precise.

“Hello, Ellen. This is your great-grandmother speaking. Now, my little dote, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what you should call me, and I think I’ve come up with the best solution. Your scoundrel of a mother started calling me Lola when she was just a child, and her two sisters followed suit, but you need a different name for me, I think. And not just Great-Grandmother. I’m much better than great. So, my darling, I would like you to call me Really-Great-Gran from now on. Okay?”

There was a pause on the tape.

“Are you listening, Ellen?” Lola asked.

“Yes,” Ellen answered sleepily beside Anna.

The voice on the tape continued. “Good girl. And are you happy with that? Happy to call me Really-Great-Gran?”

“Yes, Really-Great-Gran,” Ellen answered in the pause. She knew this ritual by heart.

“Good girl. Now, I’m going to tell you a few stories about your mother and your grandfather, but first I’m going to sing you one or two of my favorite songs. So settle back and relax.”

Relax? Anna bit her lip as Lola started warbling “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” in her falsetto voice. The last thing Lola’s voice would make you do is relax. She could clear a room in seconds. Ellen didn’t seem to mind. Lola could have been singing a sweetly tuned nursery rhyme, the way Ellen was reacting. Her lids were getting heavier by the second, her lips mouthing the words along with her great-grandmother’s slaughtered version. Anna smiled, remembering the song. It was one of the first ones Lola had taught Anna and her sisters. There’d been a row over who got to sing the high notes. Carrie had won, hadn’t she? Or was it Bett? It certainly hadn’t been her, cursed with as deep a singing voice as her speaking voice. She’d always sung the bass parts.

Lola reached a shrieking crescendo, then paused on the tape, as if expecting her performance to be followed by rapturous applause. “One of my favorites, Ellen, and one of your mum and aunts’ favorites, too. As is this one. Are you comfortable? Sing along with me, darling.”

As Lola embarked on “The Good Ship Lollipop” Anna glanced down. Ellen was fast asleep.

Back in the living room, Anna poured herself a glass of wine and pressed the TV remote control. She stared at the screen, trying to pick up the plot of the thriller, fighting the desolate feeling inside her that seemed to be rising closer to the surface each day. One phrase kept occurring to her. I’m lonely. Lonely. Yet she had friends in Sydney, didn’t she? People she could meet for coffee? And hadn’t there been joint friends, other couples who came over for dinner or who they met in restaurants occasionally? Not anymore. They had all slipped away the past year or so, like extras in a film, Anna thought, silently stealing away and leaving the main action to unfold. She couldn’t blame them. Who would want to be around to see how she and Glenn treated each other these days?

The TV program changed to advertisements, and Anna noticed without pleasure that it was her voice coming out of the mouth of the animated mobile phone on the screen. She’d done that one two years ago now, and here it was back again.

She put down the glass and rubbed her face with her hands. Who was she fooling? She didn’t want to talk to Glenn or any Sydney friends or colleagues. She wanted to talk to her sisters again. She wanted Carrie to sympathize with her. She wanted Bett to cheer her up with some madly melodramatic account of how bad her day had been. She wanted to tell them both how awful things had become with Glenn, especially since Ellen’s accident, but how wonderful Ellen herself had been, most of the time.

She could ring her mother or father at the motel, but she’d never really confided in either of them. It had always been too hard to get the timing right. They’d be either in the kitchen cooking for houseguests, or out in the bar, or doing the accounts, or any of the hundred things both of them always seemed to be doing. She could ring Lola, but lately those calls hadn’t been having the calming effect they used to. For the first year or two after the big fight, Lola had been understanding, trying to see each of their points of view, as she always had. Understanding had turned to exasperation. “This is ludicrous. I’m ashamed of the three of you, carrying on like this.” She’d tried the frosty approach for a while. “I’m not talking to any of you while you persist in this ridiculous carry-on.” But then Lola had missed their phone calls, too. “Just because I’m talking to you doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven any of you.” But for the past six months there had been silence on the subject. Perhaps she’d realized, as Anna herself slowly had, that that was that. It had gone on too long now for things to change.

A scream on the TV made Anna jump. A young blonde detective was being chased down a dark street by two men in suits, her face in close-up, fear-stricken. “Oh, shush, would you,” Anna said aloud. “You’re just acting, for God’s sake.” She put the remote control on the shelf under the coffee table. As she did she noticed the mail in a pile, wrapped inside the free local newspaper. How long had that been there? She picked it up and checked the date—more than two weeks old. How many times had she asked Glenn not to leave the mail there? Is this what it had come to? Each of them deliberately doing the things they knew most annoyed the other?

She flicked through the bundle. Bills. Advertising material. A fund-raising letter from Ellen’s school. And a thick cream envelope. She turned it over, recognizing the handwriting immediately. Puzzled, she tore it open. It was an invitation. She read it again. No, not an invitation. A summons.
Monica McInerney|Author Q&A

About Monica McInerney

Monica McInerney - The Alphabet Sisters

Photo © Michael Boyny

Monica McInerney is the author of the international bestseller The Alphabet Sisters. She lives in Ireland.

Author Q&A

S i s t e r s T a l k i n g A b o u t S i s t e r s

Monica McInerney, author of The Alphabet Sisters, has a real-time e-mail conversation with her three real-life sisters. Lea, forty-five years old and a management consultant, is in Hobart, Tasmania. In South Australia is Marie, fortythree, a journalist and mother of four (three girls and a fourweek-old boy); and Maura, thirty-eight, mother of Xavier, also four weeks old. Monica, thirty-nine, is in Dublin, where she lives with her Irish husband.

There are also three brothers in the McInerney family, Paul, Stephen, and Rob. Their mother, Mary, now lives in Adelaide, after moving from the family home in the Clare Valley (the setting for The Alphabet Sisters) last year. Their father, Steve, was the railway stationmaster in the Clare Valley for more than thirty years. He died of cancer in March 2000.

Monica: Hello, my sisters. To set the scene—it’s 8 AM in Dublin. It’s been lashing rain all night, but so far this morning it is dry with a watery blue sky. I’m at my desk in my office, with the lights on because it’s still dark. It’s getting very autumnal for this early in October. All the trees are changing color, everyone has colds, and we’re about to switch to winter time, so it will be dark at 5 PM soon. There are Christmas decorations in the shops, too, by the way.

Lea: I’m here in Hobart, at 6 PM. Switching to summer time robbed us of an hour of sleep on the weekend so I’m as tired, grumpy, and disorganized as a mother with a newborn baby. Check this out and you’ll be able to see Hobart’s weather for yourself: http://www.rosebay.tased.edu.au/webcam marie: It’s a beautiful bright spring day here in Adelaide, 4:30 in the afternoon, but I just got up from a nap. The new baby’s unsettled, so are the rest of us, and I don’t think I’ll even get to the shops before Christmas.

Maura: Okay, maybe I’m last, but then, so I was! I’m in a place away from my home in Clare—I’m at our mother’s house in Adelaide (I’m her favorite daughter, just in case that subject comes up) and it’s a lovely sunny day. My ma is sitting on the verandah holding my beautiful four-week-old son, Xavier. Hopes are he will nap until we’re done here.

Lea: This is going to be a bit weird, like that seven-second satellite delay thing that happens on the TV news. Any ideas for managing it? (said the eldest one)

Marie: Maybe we should set up a chat room (said the second eldest, creatively and innovatively, yet not knowing what a chat room was or where the door would be)

Maura: No, forget the chat room, this is fun. You spend the whole time trying to catch up and being all confused as to what’s going on. Kind of like my life, really.

Monica: What about I start by asking you three a few questions? (said the bossiest one)

Lea: I thought Marie was the bossiest one.

Marie: No, smartest!

Monica: First question, then. How do you think your relationship with your sisters differs from your relationship with other female friends?

Lea: I am quite happy with my friends to behave like a fortyfive-year-old, whereas with my sisters I am perennially eight years old, at least for some subjects.

Maura: My relationship with my sisters is: (a) Different, depending on which sister we’re talking about. There is, though, a thread of sameness—probably about shared memories (although that’s probably not true—being
the youngest girl, I was raised on stories about what happened in the family while we were growing up, so I’m actually not sure whether what I recall is actually my own memory at work, or a recollection of stories I’ve been told). Friendships are usually different because they’re more grounded in the present. (b) Tension-filled at times. Curiously, my relationships with my sisters are both more relaxed than with my friends (the go-into-their-house-and-make-your-own-toast thing) and more tense (awareness of how to hurt the other, whether intentionally or, more often, not).

Marie: I think I have different relationships with each of you, and each is very valued and loved. But, to generalize, I think my relationship with you all is, on some levels, more honest than what I have with many friends, although not always. I tend to let rip with my full and true colors to family—the good, the bad, the ugly and, particularly, the childish (in good and bad ways). But I might well not tell you all about every night out I’ve ever had or when I’m miffed with you. (Then I’ll tell my friends about you!) I don’t really have different relationships with my friends, but my sisters are among my very best friends, and have set the template, really, for the level of intimacy, care, and consideration that I need from real friendship. That’s when you’re not all being mad/rude/out of control, of course.

Lea: Sisters—biggest laughs, biggest fights, biggest tantrums, biggest hearts. Friends are all of these but the volume and color go down a notch or two (except when I am missing my sisters and transpose years of sister stuff onto girl friendships, creating surrogate sisters). I like Maura’s idea about friends being more grounded in the present. You’re kind of on alert with sisters, especially with three of them, for shots (I use the word reservedly) coming from any direction and any era. Often your sister didn’t mean anything by that, but the past is the filter you ran her comment or action through before it hit your normally intelligent and mature brain. A simple statement from a sister can be like the most dense and layered poem ever written.

Monica: When I think about my sisters, I feel surrounded, and in the middle of something, hundreds of layers, going back years but also looking forward to how things will be for all of us, knowing we will be a part of one another’s lives. With my friends, thoughts come and go. I’m very focused when I’m with them, talking to them, e-mailing them, but we dip in and out of one another’s lives. With my sisters, I feel like I am immersed in you. You three are part of me, on my mind in a constant way, either when you’re worrying about something (perhaps a recent troubling conversation) or amusing me (something said in e-mail or conversation that makes me laugh out loud, which happens very often, or a childhood memory that can go either way) or making me feel grateful that I have each of you (the way I know I can call on each of you for help with work, life advice, or just to listen or laugh at a story). Next question: Does it feel like our relationship has changed as we have gotten older, or are the battlefields/sticking points the ones formed in childhood?

Marie: I think our relationships with one another change all the time and generally don’t relate to how things were when we were kids except when, all of a sudden, we hit a “stab from the past” road bump and then I can erupt in all the rage of childhood. I actually don’t see us in terms of oldest, youngest, prettiest (me!), most successful, etc. It’s more about relating to the different individuals we’ve become, despite all that shared background. Just when you think we all know what the other is talking about . . . I forgot to say in the other bit that for me it’s the fun and laughing that are the most important. I do laugh with my sisters probably more than with any other people on earth.

Lea: I like the way we deal with the hard stuff—an amazing mix of hard-nosed practicality, deep love, and compassion, and then the blackest and wickedest of humor.

Maura: I think my relationship with each of you has changed. As we’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more secrets about Lea and Marie. I wasn’t a part of their younger lives, but that’s fine, as I’ve heard about those times quite enough. With Moni, it’s a different sort of change—not the “just getting to know you” type of thing, because we shared a room and spent so much time together, even built an altar in our bedroom together and all. I think it’s become a little more mature. Most of the time at least. I think there’s a different depth to our overall relationship as sisters since Dad died. Not a pious thing but just an acknowledgment that yucky things happen to even our family (even though we all perform as if it’s a golden world). As a result, I think we’re all a little bit kinder to one another because we have a shared vulnerability. It’s easier to be kind if you have a sense of the pain/confusion/guilt/anger that someone else can feel and Dad’s death gave us that measure, I reckon.

Lea: I agree with you about the Dad stuff. It did change things heaps and took us all a big leap into—oh, I don’t know—for me the things I ratted on about you guys to other people I no longer felt like doing anymore. We can sort of pick on one another now but it doesn’t feel vicious like it could/did in the past.

Monica: I agree. It made everything more fragile and therefore more precious. When there were nine of us, when Dad was alive, it was like being part of a solar system, I thought. All revolving around one another, vaguely keeping in place. If you looked up or around, you knew who you would see. Dad dying changed that forever. I got—and still have—such a sense of things being able to change in an instant, and that a gap could appear at any moment, which would not just mean that terrible grief and shock, but also the shifting around, trying to make sense of it all. “What do we do now?” It’s made me—not obsessive, exactly, about thinking about you all, brothers, mum, as well as sisters—but so conscious of it. Being far away in Ireland sometimes makes me feel so sad, because I have a longing just to be close and in the middle of you all, and to feel safe and sure of the world. Wanting to be back to being eight years old again.

Lea: It was a big gift Mum and Dad gave us—that sense of safety when we were kids. Mum thinks that the house had a lot to do with our sense of ourselves and a certain confidence. This big, beautiful, solid home we had to go off to school from and come home to every day. Incredible security. And also Mum and Dad when there were troubles, both so solid, making us know we would be fine, we would get through, it’d be okay. I still have that sense from them mostly, although not always, since that gap in the wall that Dad’s death opened up. But if he opened it, it means he’s there somewhere on the other side of it. Hope so, sisters. Regarding battlefields. All is well and yes, I feel I am very grown up and mature except when I’m tired, which always seems to happen when I am back in the bosom of the family. Then I get the sooks and am back in those eight-year-old shoes again. I think, for me, it is hard flying in and out for brief visits. I found it easier in a way being there on a continuing basis, like during the time with Dad when he was dying (except for that hard bit to it). I needed to be held within the family circle physically for a while and I think I regained my footing. I’m pretty wobbly on some of the trips back, as much because of what I’ve left behind (busy work, needing a holiday, being a bit stressed) as what I’m heading into on my visit (busy families, busy lives). It’s hard to gauge immediately or even in a few days where things lie with your sisters. You do have some of the most intimate talks with your sisters, but like any relationship, you can’t guarantee one another you’ll be in the place for a deep talk when each of you needs that connection.

Monica: It’s been strange/odd/different/bad/good being away from you all the past couple of years, when so much has been happening in the family [the family home being sold, pregnancies, two new babies]. At times it’s been a bit like reading a book about you all, or hearing a radio serial. I’ve heard about your lives on the phone or read e-mails, rather than seen any of it happen, which gives it all that air of unreality. It’s been especially strange sometimes when I was working on the new book and shifting and changing plot lines or characters, and then reading a family e-mail and thinking “Well, perhaps now is the time that this happens or that character realizes this or these two people start being honest with each other.” Then I remember, “You can’t do that, these are real people in this e-mail, not your characters.” I know from past experience that it takes a little while to find my place in the family again after being away, trying to fit in, trying not to be hurt by all the in-jokes that have come up while I’ve been away. And also really wishing it could be like this all the time, all of us sitting around the table talking and laughing and trying to out-do one another, which is one of my favorite things in the world. But I also know I need to be away, because it is too seductive otherwise and I would never want to do anything other than talk and laugh with you. I agree that we have very different relationships with one another. That makes sense. It criss-crosses back and forth, I think, depending on what each of us needs at the time. And of course it is different because of proximity—Maura and Marie, you see each other so regularly, that must make a big difference. It’s different for Lea and I, who drop in and out only a couple of times a year, or in my case these days, once every year or so.

Lea: We’re kind of like four intersecting circles (damn, if we were all together I’d draw you a diagram right now)—lots of bits overlapping, but also the bits of us that are our other lives, that we’re proud of, protective of, et cetera. I remember thinking when I was back in South Australia after Dad died that I could just stay there forever and that would be fine. But then there’s this little voice and this little finger saying, “C’mon, c’mon, there’s other things you have to do with your life, c’mon . . .” You think, oh, it’s hard and I miss everyone and I feel torn but I have to do this (and let’s be honest I quite like it most of the time) but I do miss them.

Marie: Mmm, but sometimes it’s hard being the ones in the home circle. It’s easier for you to put niggle bits and annoyances onto the other person because you’re in a bad mood and they happen to be around. Or you’re constantly not meeting their expectations rather than just failing every Christmas. That’s not in any way to diminish how fraught it can be coming home—been there, done that, observed it, sympathize et cetera. I agree very much, too, about the Dad time. I think it gave us new respect for one another (watching what each of you gave to him—shaves, bed baths, conversations, pain management, humor). I also learned more about and from each of you than I ever imagined. I remember a particular conversation one night with Lea that really changed my world view about Dad. I realized the rest of the family (or most of you) had moved on from our past way of dealing with/being with him, and I had to step over a bridge and grow up in a way. That’s a great thing to have someone actually give you, rather than having to work it out slowly for yourself. I think that happens a lot with my sisters—sudden insights borrowed and stolen!

Lea: I agree totally with Marie regarding sudden insights— and the other side of that is that when you unknowingly/unwittingly “give them” you tend to get them at the same time. It was in talking with you about Dad that I made big leaps too. I think I was about a half a step ahead of you—or maybe we were pairs in a three-legged race!

Maura: Marie? What niggly bits? Did I miss something? I know you hate everyone else in the family but I thought what we had was beautiful!

Monica: I think there are flashpoints or triggers that come up in surprising ways. Something like wanting Mum’s undivided attention or feeling picked on or left out or misunderstood comes from childhood and still hangs around. I can be rational about situations, usually, but sometimes I have an immediate deep emotional response inside me that surprises me. Alarms me, even.

Lea: It’s primal, sweetie, and as such it involves, sometimes, a simple desire to kill.

Marie: Guys, sorry, hell hour has descended . . . baby crying, Ruby screaming, Ulli trying to show me eight different ways of bouncing a ball against a wall . . . Can I get back to you on stuff or rejoin you later if you’re still going? My fave story for today, by the way—not sisters but siblings. We were outside, Rafael [new baby] lying on the lawn, Ruby [three years old] riding her three-wheeler bike. “Can you put his feet there, Mum?” she asked. “I want to use his feet as a road.”

Monica: [Later] If we had all had a big fight, in the way the three Quinlans did in The Alphabet Sisters, do you think it would have taken us three years to reunite?

Lea: I think that question is answered by the comments about Dad’s dying and where that has taken us all. I think we all need space from time to time. Including you who are all physically nearby.

Maura: I can’t think of anything that any of you could do that would upset me so badly that I’d give up the laughs and the other good things about knowing you.

Marie: I can actually imagine us falling out for three years or more if we fought over the same thing the Quinlans did—one of us “taking” another’s man. I can imagine that would bust things up incredibly. But I can’t imagine any of my sisters doing that. I know that’s easy to say and that one shouldn’t deny true love and all the stuff that Carrie and Matthew went through, but I think it would be a taboo for us. I can, however, picture other smaller betrayals—indeed I know we’ve all inflicted them along the way—but I think we’d be far more likely to disguise how hurt we were (and bitch madly behind backs) rather than blow things up publicly. We’d much rather be seen as stoic than sensitive, I think.

Monica: I can’t stand not talking to one of you for a week, let alone three years. I can see exactly why it happened to the Quinlans, because they needed that space from one another, but I think we’ve found that space in different ways. Final question: Have you had people saying: “Is The Alphabet Sisters about you and your sisters?” What did you say and did you mind being asked?

Lea: Yes, people have asked if it is about us. I just say (again and again) “Monica knows we would kill her if she modeled any of them on us.” I also point out that you cleverly (sensibly?) made none of them look like us. I think you were very clever the way you wrote it. There are some great stories that you have, of course, stolen from our shared childhood, however the ones you picked, you write about so beautifully and funnily that I can but say you have done us proud. And you have stayed right away from any character traits or any more important or serious stories that might implicate us, so to speak.

Maura: Crikey. where to begin? Here’s what happens: Person: I’ve just finished/am in the middle of Monica’s new book. Me: Oh, yes, and what do you think of it? Person: I’m really enjoying it. So which sister are you? Me: Maura. Person: No, I mean, in the book? Me: None of them, obviously. Person: Oh, come on, you must be one of them. (At this stage, conversation deteriorates into “am not/are so” debacle.)

Marie: Someone told me today they had just read the book and tried to work out which sister was me. I don’t mind at all being asked. I love it that my sister has written a book and that people like reading it enough to get caught up in the characters. I love stumbling upon little stories in the book that are based on stuff we did as kids. And I couldn’t get over that I sobbed and sobbed at the end, even while thinking, “For God’s sake, your sister made this up!” By the way, I just asked my daughters if they think my sisters and me get on. Ulli responded, “Yeah, derr!”

Praise

Praise

International acclaim for The Alphabet Sisters

“The Maeve Binchyish empathy McInerney shows for the changes and chances of family life draws us into this gentle, life-affirming story. We come away feeling better about the world and, maybe, just a little more tender towards those close to us.”
–The Sydney Morning Herald

“You’ll be laughing out loud one minute and crying the next.”
–Cosmopolitan, Australia edition (This Month’s Must Read)

“A charming and exciting family drama, full of surprises.”
–Evening Herald (England)

“McInerney has made producing a classy, well-written story with convincing characters look as easy as A, B, C.”
–Ireland on Sunday

“Charm, laughter, and tears . . . a delightful story that shows how quarrels can be solved with love and loyalty.”
–Woman’s Day

“A wonderful read for girls who have sisters, and those who wish they had.”
–She magazine
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. The Alphabet Sisters begins and ends with chapters from Bett’s perspective. Why do you think that author Monica McInerney chose to frame the novel in this way? Do you think that Bett is the guiding narrative voice in the story? Why or why not?

2. Which sister do you feel most sympathetic toward when the book begins? Did your allegiance shift as the story unfolded?

3. The girls’ grandmother, Lola, is a larger-than-life personality. What lessons have her son and grandchildren learned from her? What would you say are the guiding principles of Lola’s life?

4. Lola christens her grandchildren “The Alphabet Sisters.” What does this group identity mean to Anna, Bett, and Carrie? How does each of them react to being on stage and in the spotlight?

5. How does Lola’s invitation to her eightieth birthday spur each sister to make a change in her life? What do you think their parents felt about the daughters’ feud? Why didn’t the sisters’ parents get more involved?

6. How does each sister resent and admire the other? How did their time apart strengthen their individual personalities and their bonds with one another? What detrimental effects does the feud have on the sisters?

7. “Still avoiding the truth after all these years?” Anna asks Bett. Do you think Bett is guilty of Anna’s accusation? Why or why not? What unpleasant revelations do her sisters muffle about their lives?

8. “Lola used to talk to them as if they were her co-conspirators, her equals,” remembers Bett. How is Lola’s attitude toward her grandchildren unconventional? In which ways is she traditional? How does her mindset differ from that of her daughter-in-law, Geraldine?

9. What inspires Lola to force her granddaughters to produce her musical? Why do they agree to do it? How is music the glue that binds them together?

10. After Ellen is attacked by a dog, how does her personality change? In which ways is outward appearance an important element in Anna’s life, both before and after Ellen’s attack? How do her sisters also grapple with the ramifications of their looks?

11. How does the love triangle between Bett, Carrie, and Matthew affect each of its participants? What does Carrie love about Matthew? How does this compare to the way that Bett feels about him?

12. 12. Discuss Anna’s husband, Glenn. How does she characterize her relationship with him at the beginning of their time together? What about their marriage now?

13. By the end of the book, each sister has discovered—or rediscovered—her perfect match. How are Richard and Anna, Matthew and Carrie, and Daniel and Bett complementary to one another? How does each couple approach love and romance differently? How does this compare and contrast the relationship of the women’s parents, Jim and Geraldine?

14. What does small-town life mean to the family? How does their position as proprietors of a motel give them a unique vantage point on the goings-on of the town itself? How does their lifestyle give them a sense of stability? Of adventure?

15. Were you surprised when Anna’s illness was revealed to be terminal cancer? How does her diagnosis change the family? How do they rally around her?

16. Bett is shocked to learn that the stories spun about her grandfather are untrue. How does this revelation give you, as a reader, a different perspective on Lola? How does Bett react to her grandmother’s deception? Why do you think that Lola “especially hates” to lie to Bett?

17. Have you been in a similar position with a family feud that seemed irresolvable? How did your family solve the problem? Did it help or hurt when others—like Lola—intervened?

18. What do you envision next for Bett, Carrie, and Lola? Would you like to see a sequel of this book that follows one or more of the characters in The Alphabet Sisters? Which ones?


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