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by Alafair Burke
HarperCollins, April 2019
336 pages
ISBN: 0062853376

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE BETTER SISTER by Alafair Burke is a novel that haunted me for weeks after I finished it. This is a murder mystery, a novel of dysfunctional families, a searing look at the relationship between sisters: all set amidst the complexities of the "me too" movement.

Alafair Burke is a very talented writer the language flows seamlessly and she has created a richly ironic story of the Taylor sisters. Chloe, the younger, is the seemingly successful one, moving up the ladder in the publishing field, a star in the feminist "me too" movement. She is married to Adam, a successful attorney. The story is told from her perspective.

The wrinkle here is that her husband was formerly married to her older sister Nicky. Nicky and Adam had a son, Ethan, but ended up divorcing after Nicky, who had long struggled with an addiction to alcohol and drugs, ended up blacking out and falling into their swimming pool, nearly drowning their infant son. Because of Nicky's issues, Adam won custody of Ethan.

Younger sister Chloe was always the sister who appeared to be the successful one an honor roll student, the driven student in college, the "good" girl. Nicky was the one who lacked ambition, was a haphazard student, and who had issues with drugs and alcohol. Their parents were a textbook dysfunctional family replete with examples of abuse and bad parenting. While Chloe goes off to New York City to seek (and achieve) fame and fortune in magazine publishing, Nicky stays behind in the Cleveland area. After the divorce, Adam moves to New York (after Chloe helps him find a great job), and Chloe becomes the indispensable aunt. Their getting together has a strong aura of inevitability.

At the time of the murder, Chloe and Adam have been together for fifteen years; Ethan is now a prickly teenager. While Chloe's career has taken off, Adam is not happy practicing law at a large firm. Although they enjoy an affluent lifestyle, he doesn't make as much money as Chloe, and there are hints of darkness in the marriage. Chloe has been writing about the "me too" movement, and has just received a major award. As her celebrity grows, so do vicious personal attacks on social media.

As Chloe is being celebrated for winning the award, Adam is killed at their beach house in the Hamptons, and suspicion falls on Ethan. Burke, who is a former prosecutor, is clearly comfortable in a courtroom; the trial scenes were both crisp and suspenseful. I don't want to give away too many details here the rest of the story focuses on the re-connection between the two sisters Ethan's biological mother and his aunt-step mother who has raised him and what they will do to protect him.

While reading THE BETTER SISTER, I struggled with the main characters they were both so terribly flawed. Yet I have to admit by the end of the book, I was impressed by how skillfully Alafair Burke had manipulated me to into seeing both characters in a different light. I'm not sure I ever liked them; however, I did wonder what their future would hold, and who really was the better sister.

Phyllis Onstad has been a writer, editor, civil servant, teacher and voracious reader. She currently lives in the California wine country.

Reviewed by Phyllis Onstad, April 2019

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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