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Review of The Bird Sisters

July 13, 2011

The older I get the more I look back to try and figure out how I got where I am and the more I wonder what lies ahead.  When I read the plot line for The Bird Sisters by debut novelist Rebecca Rasmussen, it immediately piqued my curiosity because it tackles that subject matter.  The story opens late in the lives of sisters Twiss and Milly who live together in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  They are known as the Bird Sisters because they tend to injured birds brought to them by the locals. They grew up in the house where they will die and spend their last days lost in memories of the events that shaped their destiny.
The reader knows from the outset that the lives of Twiss and Milly were turned upside down at some point and that they did not get what they dreamed of as children.  Twiss was the athletic and contrary one to Milly’s sweetness, naivete and beauty.  Twiss dreamed of traveling around the world while Milly wanted a husband and family.  Rasmussen weaves chapters between the past and the present to explain what happened along the way that led them to the choices they made early on and how it informed the rest of their lives.
Twiss and Milly’s father was a golf pro until an accident stole his golden swing away.  Their mother came from a wealthy family but married for love and then grew to regret it.  The summer of the accident is the pivotal moment when all of their fates are decided.  A visit from their cousin Bett is the ingredient that adds momentum and soon their lives are changed forever.  Even Father Rice at their church has a revelation that leaves them all reeling.
This character-driven novel is based on a story that Rasmussen heard from her grandmother and it is probably this fact that makes it ring so true.  It is a sweet but heart-wrenching tale of a family challenged on all fronts and how they cope and survive.  Thankfully, it is never cloying or trite.  There is a darkness and depth to Twiss and Milly that makes them multi-dimensional and not quite predictable.  The dialogue is spare but rich.
The theme of two elderly sisters living out their final days together resonates with me and probably will with a lot of others. It’s refreshing to have main characters be past the “golden” years of youth – elderly characters are mostly neglected in literature these days.  And perhaps it made me think of my own sister.  We’ve always said that if something happens to our husbands we will move in together to live out our days coming full circle from when we shared a room growing up.  It’s both disturbing and comforting to remember that our family makes up the ties that bind us to this world.
And though we won’t repair broken birds as the Bird Sisters did, we might be there to provide sustenance – my sister with a five-course gourmet meal for which she is renowned and me with a muddled mojito. As for all of our vast differences, in the end we would be as Twiss described the melding of she and Milly: “together, they made one regular person.”
The Bird Sisters is uniquely quirky and an enjoyable read through and through and I hope to see more from Rasmussen soon.  (Crown Publishing, 2011)

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