In many ways, Joshilyn Jackson’s The Almost Sisters does a lot of the things that Whiskey and Ribbons tried but came up short on for me. To be fair to Leesa Cross-Smith, last week’s book was her first novel, and this is Joshilyn Jackson’s eighth. But The Almost Sisters exists in a fully developed world. One that is familiar to me, and at times frustrating to me. I have no real love for small towns, but Jackson is clearly fond of them and has depicted a charming one in her setting of Birchville, Alabama.
Our narrator, Leia Birch Briggs was perhaps born to be a sci-fi fan since she is named after the princess in Star Wars, but she is a comic book artist who has created her own successful graphic novel Violence in Violet–that I would totally read–about a vigilante named Violet. After a drunken hookup at ComicCon, she finds herself pregnant by a man she only really knows as Batman. I enjoyed how developed Leia’s career was, peppered with the names of comic book labels, writers, and artists that I recognized. While Leia’s sister doesn’t really seem to understand what she does for a living or how impressive her career is (a funny note that also tracks with what a lot of my artist friends have said about how their parents are loving and supportive, but do not understand what they do for a living), Leia is clearly very accomplished.
Leia has to go home because her sneaky grandmother has dementia, but she and her close friend Wattie have been trying to cover up how serious the issue is. I do love a sneaky grandmother, though there is sort of a weird mix in the novel of sweet old ladies, small town pettiness, and…murder. The tone of The Almost Sisters is tricky because it is light overall, but, I mean, there’s a murder. Also, I generally prefer my Southern murder plots to be of the Gothic variety, but this is a book about characters, and it works because there are so many good ones.
Leia goes to Alabama with her niece Lavender, who feels like a real kid. On the one hand, she is very perceptive, and on the other, things are happening in her life that she doesn’t totally know how to process or talk about. Leia’s relationship with her step sister, Rachel, is strained at times, but Rachel isn’t a villain. She just sees the world very differently, and at times you get glimpses of why these two characters struggle with one another for reasons that are understandable and innate to each of them.
There are also, of course, two sweet little old ladies. They are perhaps a little too sweet. Almost “cute” at times, but the struggle of getting older and yet being an adult who doesn’t wan’t to give up her own autonomy is one that many of us have seen our relatives go through. The machinations they orchestrate to hold on to their independence are ones I may file away for 40 years from now when I am someone’s sneaky old aunt.
I enjoyed this book, and it certainly captures a version of the South that I know and understand. But I often feel a disconnect with fiction that happens in a sweet little town. Small towns in fiction always seem a little quirkier, nicer, and generally more charming than they are in real life. Otherwise, no one would want to visit.