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On Sale: June 10, 2008
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-26926-3
Published by : Anchor Knopf

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Born into a long line of distinguished lepidopterists, scientists who study moths and butterflies, Ginny and Vivien grew up in a sprawling Victorian home. Forty-seven years later, Ginny lives there alone, tending to her moths and obsessions amid the ghosts of her past.

But when her sister Vivien returns to the crumbling family mansion, dark, unspoken secrets rise, disrupting Ginny's ordered life and threatening the family's fragile peace. Told in Ginny's unforgettable voice, this debut novel tells a disquieting story of two sisters and the ties that bind—sometimes a little too tightly.


It’s ten to two in the afternoon and I’ve been waiting for my little sister, Vivi, since one-thirty. She’s finally coming home, at sixty-seven years old, after an absence of nearly fifty years.

I’m standing at a first-floor window, an arched stone one like you’d find in a church, my face close up to the diamond-shaped leaded panes, keeping lookout. For a moment I focus on the glass and catch the faint, honest reflection of my eye staring back at me, a lock of gray straggly hair in its way. I don’t often look at my reflection and to peer at this moment directly into my eye feels more disconcerting than it should, as if I can sense I’m about to be judged.

I pull my wool cardy—an old one of my father’s—more tightly around me, tucking the loose end under my arm. It’s dropped a degree today, the wind must have changed easterly during the night, and later we’ll get fog in the valley. I don’t need a barograph or a hygrometer these days, I can sense it—pressure changes, a shift in humidity—but, to tell the truth, I also think about the weather to help me take my mind off things. If I didn’t have it to ponder right now, I’d already be getting slightly anxious. She’s late.

My smoky breath turns to liquid as it hits the window and, if I rub the mist into heavy droplets, I can make it trickle down the glass. From here I can see half the length of the grassy drive as it winds through the tall skeletal limes on either side, until it disappears right, curving downhill towards East Lodge and the lane and the outside world. If I move my head a fraction to the left the drive elongates and the tops of the limes veer suddenly to the side, distorted by the imperfections of handmade glass. Moving it a little to the right splits the beech hedge in two on either side of a bubble. I know every vagary of every pane. I’ve lived here all my life and, before me, my mother lived here all her life and, before her, her father and grandfather.

Did I tell you that Vivien said in her letter she was returning for good? For some final peace, she said, because now, she said, we ought to be keeping each other company for the rest of our lives, rather than dying lonely and alone. Well, I’ll tell you now, I don’t feel lonely and I certainly don’t feel as if I’m dying, but even so I’m glad she’s coming home. Glad, and a little nervous—a surge of apprehension is swelling in my stomach. I can’t help wondering what we’ll talk about after all these years and, I suppose, if I’ll even recognize her.

I’m not, as a rule, an emotional person. I’m far too—how shall I put it?—levelheaded. I was always the sensible sister and Vivi was the adventurer, but my excitement at her impending arrival even sur- prises me.

She is late, however. I look at my wristwatch—the digital one on my left wrist. Her letter most specifically read one-thirty and, believe me, it’s not my timekeeping that’s gone awry. I keep a number of clocks just so I can be sure that, even if one or two let me down, I can always find the correct time. When you live by yourself in a house that you very rarely leave and is even more rarely visited, it’s essen- tial that you don’t lose track of the time. Every minute lost—if left uncorrected—would soon accumulate to an hour, and then hours, until—as you can imagine—you could easily end up living in a completely erroneous time frame.

Our mother, Maud, and I were always waiting for Vivi: in the hall before we went to church or shouting for her from the landing to hurry up for school. And it’s now, as I wait for her again, that I find snippets of our childhood jumping into my head, slices of conversation, things I’ve not thought about since they happened: our first pair of boots, which Vivi had chosen for us, long black ones that laced to the top; long afternoons in the summer holidays spent damming up the brook to create our own tributaries and islands; sneaking into the loggia at harvest time to drink cider before taking it to the men in the fields; giggling with Maud at Clive’s rare excitement when he created a Six-spot Burnet with five spots; our first trip to boarding school, holding each other’s clammy hands with shared anticipation, squeezed among the chemical bottles in the back of Clive’s car.

It was a childhood in perfect balance, so I’m wondering what it was that came along and changed everything. It wasn’t just one thing. There’s rarely a sole cause for the separation of lives. It’s a sequence of events, an inexorable chain reaction where each small link is fundamental, like a snake of upended dominoes. And I’ve been thinking that the very first one, the one you push to start it all off, must have been when Vivi slipped off our bell tower and nearly died, fifty-nine years ago.

From the Hardcover edition.
Poppy Adams

About Poppy Adams

Poppy Adams - The Sister

Photo © Rob Sturges

Poppy Adams has worked as a documentary filmmaker for the BBC and the Discovery Channel. She lives with her husband and three children in London, where she is working on her next book.


“Masterly. . . . At once beautiful, informative, and disturbing . . . [with] stylish prose, taut plotting and dark psychology.” —The Washington Post Book World“Deliciously creepy. . . . Reminds us of A.S. Byatt, Kate Atkinson and Stephen King having a house party.” —The Detroit News"Captivating. . . . The odd characters who make up The Sister are extraordinary, each one more unsettling than the next, and their fractured group portrait is deliciously chilling.” —The Miami Herald“An ideal book for discussion groups, because it prompts analysis with a surprise ending that is both stunning and ambiguous." —Providence Journal"The Sister is powered by the same sort of confidently rendered literary suspense that propelled Donna Tartt's The Secret History onto bestseller lists." —The New York Times“Modern gothic.... A story of science and sexual surrogacy, of Alzheimer's and madness: a tangle of violent emotions and roiling passions.”—The Wall Street Journal"Dark and sinister, The Sister draws you in like a moth to a flame...A wholly satisfying character study with heart throbbing twists that will leave you shuddering."—Chris Stuckenschneider, The Missourian"Suspenseful...Adams creates an engrossing atmosphere of gothic mystery."—The New Yorker"The Sister is an ideal book for discussion groups, because it prompts analysis with a surprise ending that is both stunning and ambiguous."—Mandy Twaddell, The Providence Journal"Adams spins a suspenseful, provocative, deliberately ambiguous tale about decay and disrepair-of people and the bonds between them-and about the harm that comes from even well-intended secrecy and silence."—Laura Collins-Hughes, New York Sun"The great beauty of this splendid first novel lies in Ginny's voice, perfectly clear, controlled and calm...A brilliant narrative performance."—Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe“Readers will be haunted by this chilling psychological drama.”—Sue Corbett, People"A genuinely eerie thriller...a chilling contemporary gothic."—Margaret Flanagan, Booklist"A chilling and disturbing novel."—Laurel Bliss, Library Journal, starred review"Chilling...an eerie and accomplished debut."—Publishers Weekly "Engrossing."—Kirkus Reviews "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane comes to Devon, in Adams's gothic tale of madness, sibling rivalry and lepidoptera. Adams is a skillful, entertaining storyteller."—The Guardian"This is a dark book, but an extremely funny one, recalling Mark Haddon and Barbara Trapido by turns. A brilliantly paced debut."—Daily Mail"[A] striking debut novel...[The Sister] is also, in its quietly idiosyncratic way, a novel of ideas. When Ginny reflects on the 'analytic and scientific' cast of mind she inherited from her father, it's difficult not to think of Keats and the 'touch of cold philosopy' that 'unweaves' the poetry of natural phenomena. Adams took a risk in deciding to tell her story in the flat, abstracted voice of someone who has devoted her life to a 'little known insect.' But it is a convincing, true voice and it is to Adams's credit that she sustains it as she does."—Financial Times"Cognitive dissonance is what drives the plot, and that makes this quite a bold first novel."—Daily Telegraph"Damaged families, psychological drama and ghosts from the past abound. Adams succeeds in carefully building up an atmosphere of penumbral suspense, creeping towards a tense climax."—Literary Review"[The Sister] is an intricately crafted story, told with just the right balance of claustrophobia and compassion."—Psychologies Magazine"[A] beautifully staged story...mesmerising and unsettling."—Good Housekeeping Book of the Month"The scene is set for sinister secrets and the revival of murderous family tensions. Adams's debut is an atmospheric addition to the 'mess with your head' school of fiction."—Marie Claire, 4 stars“A gothic mystery that hums along on its slow-burning menace, Poppy Adams's The Sister is a sinful box of bonbons: delicious, but you never know what's inside the next bite.”—Andrew Pyper, author of Lost Girls and The Wildfire Season “A taut, tense tale of the ties that bind-sometimes a little too tightly.”—Karin Slaughter“This lyrical and haunting story of two sisters, their troubling past, and the terrible secrets they each want buried will stay with you long after you close the book. A wonderful book loaded with twists and turns that come straight from the heart.”—Harlan Coben
Reader's Guide|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Masterly. . . . At once beautiful, informative, and disturbing . . . [with] stylish prose, taut plotting and dark psychology.”
The Washington Post Book World

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group's discussion of Poppy Adams's eerie tale of two sisters reunited after nearly fifty years. Set in a decaying Victorian mansion, The Sister bristles with psychological suspense as unspoken resentments and long-buried secrets come to the surface.

About the Author

Poppy Adams has worked as a documentary filmmaker for the BBC and the Discovery Channel. She lives in London, where she is working on her next book.

Discussion Guides

1. What is your initial impression of Ginny? Does she appear to be a trustworthy narrator? Are there aspects of her musings as she waits for Vivien that make you dislike or mistrust her?

2. What do the tone and content of Ginny's description of Vivien's fall from the bell tower convey about how her mind works [p. 14]? Is her literal, straightforward style characteristic of the way children report an event, or does it seem odd or jarring to you? Do her parents' reactions [pp. 15–16] reinforce your impressions? What do they reveal about Clive and Maud, both as parents and as individuals?

3. What insights does Ginny's admission that she, like her father, is "hopeless at social expression" [p. 29] offer into the family dynamics? In what ways does Ginny and Vivien's relationship mirror their parents' relationship? Do the similarities between a parent and a child, real or imagined, often divide families into to separate "camps"?

4. In what ways is the condition of Bulburrow Court a metaphor for Ginny's emotional state? Compare Vivien's point of view [p. 33] to Ginny's explanation of why she has stripped the house of its furnishings and closed off many of its rooms [pp. 33–34 and p. 73]. In stressing the practical aspects of her decision, is Ginny suppressing more complicated feelings? Are there hints that she may be aware of the psychological motivations behind her actions?

5. As they become reacquainted, the sisters alternately communicate with warmth and affection and wound each other. Is their behavior typical of sibling relationships? Discuss Ginny's comment that the sisters' relationship is "exactly the same as it was half a century ago, as if we've not matured at all" [p. 39] in terms of your own family or other long-term relationships.

6. What does Maud's handling of her daughters' experiences at school [pp. 40–42, pp. 51–52] reveal about her maternal instincts and strengths? What are the consequences of the choices she makes and her eagerness to create a tightly knit family?

7. Is Clive a passive presence in the household? Ginny claims that "he didn't have a clue what was going on anywhere in the house apart from his lab" and can't see "how he could have caused offense to anyone" [p. 83]. Vivi responds: "I'm afraid you've got the wrong person, Ginny. Clive could smell a rat in the pantry from that lab." Is Vivien's far different interpretation of his role in the family closer to your own impressions? Cite the specific incidents or passages that support your point of view.

8. What lessons does Ginny draw from her parents' frequent lectures about how clever she is while "they never seemed to offer the same compliments to Vivi" [p. 52]? To what extent is her belief that "I'm one of the lucky ones who are carried along and life falls into place" attributable to her upbringing and the distinctions her parents make between the sisters? What other factors play a role in her assumptions?

9. How do Ginny's reactions to her mother's decline [p. 111, pp 121–124] and death [pp. 169–171] reflect the emotional currents Maud established in the household? What do her reasons for keeping Maud's secret from Vivien [p.130] reveal about the detachment and deceptions that Maud and Clive exhibited in their relationships with each other and with the girls?

10. What is the significance of the sisters' plan to have Ginny carry a baby for Vivien? What qualities does Arthur bring out of each of the sisters? Does the arrangement—as well as the eventual outcome—change your sympathies for either sister? How accurately does Ginny perceive the situation? Discuss the implications of the question she asks many years later: "Could our entire sisterhood have been a farce, years of complicated deception, of endless assurances of love, charm and manipulation, all so that one day she could take what she wanted?" [p. 225].

11. In his research, Clive focuses on imperfect specimens: "If you could work out, he said, how they'd gone wrong, you'd discover a lot more about how nature worked" [p. 54]. What similarities are there between Clive and Ginny's approach to the study of moths and how Ginny presents her family history? In what ways does Ginny's ability to manipulate conditions in her scientific studies manifest itself in the methods she employs in hopes of discovering why Vivien has come home?

12. At what point in the novel does Ginny cross the line from eccentricity to something more frightening and disturbing? Does Vivien intentionally provoke her, or does Ginny misinterpret her sister's behavior?

13. Vivien offers Ginny several opportunities to face the truth about the past. Would Ginny have responded differently if she had been less involved with her father and their shared professional ambitions? If she had more empathy with Maud's needs and her aspirations for her daughters? Do you think Ginny is emotionally or intellectual capable of seeing the bigger picture?

14. The daily and seasonal rhythm of Clive and Ginny's work is described in detail. What effect does this have on the flow of the novel? In what ways do the meticulous accounts of the behavior of moths further the sense of anticipation and suspense as the story unfolds?

15. What elements of Ginny's research create a narrative that runs parallel to—and sheds light on—the human life cycle and the impact of innate characteristics and environment on individuals? How do the scientific descriptions enhance the themes of the novel and your understanding of characters and their actions?

16. How does the author use Ginny's own voice to expose her limitations as a narrator? How does she bring to life Ginny's naïveté and the darker, more calculating side of her personality?

17. Is the ending of the novel inevitable? What events foreshadow Ginny's actions and her ultimate fate?

Suggested Readings

Michael Cox, The Meaning of Night; Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel, Rebecca; Lauren Groff, The Monsters of Templeton; Kate Morton, The House at Riverton; Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale; Rebecca Stott, Ghostwalk; Patrick Suskind, Perfume; Donna Tartt, The Little Friend, The Secret History

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