Thursday, September 10, 2020

"Once Two Sisters"

Sarah Warburton is the oldest of four sisters, raised in Virginia, and an avid reader and knitter. She has a B.A. in Latin from the College of William and Mary, an M.A. in classics from the University of Georgia and another from Brown. Warburton has worked at independent bookstores--Page One Books in Albuquerque and Books on the Square in Providence--and spent ten years as a writer, which led her to become lead editor for UpClose Magazine. Her short story "Margaret's Magnolia" appeared in Southern Arts Journal, and her Pushcart prize nominated story "Survival English" appeared in Oyster River Page. Now she lives with her family--husband, son, daughter, and hound dog--in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia.

Warburton applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Once Two Sisters, and reported the following:
Page 69 takes place in a police station conference room. Zoe is seeing her parents and her ex-lover/current brother-in-law Glenn for the first time in three years. The reunion takes place under the watchful eye of a detective, because Zoe’s sister, best-selling novelist Ava is missing and Zoe is a suspect. (Emma is Zoe’s stepdaughter.)
I imagined our reunion so many times—him apologizing, desperately explaining, coming back to me. Never this. I can’t let him see how I care.

I turn toward my parents, their faces perfectly composed, ignoring all my drama. There’s no help here. I’m drowning all by myself.

Expressionless, my mother says, “You must feel overwhelmed. Do you need to sit down?”

My parents never have to worry that their faces will betray an emotion, as they clinically identify “anger” or “grief.” Now that I’m taking care of Emma, I use those techniques when she’s having a tantrum. I mirror her distress, affirm it, and distance myself from it. Because it’s never about the cookie she can’t have or the juice that spilled. The problem is too big for her to articulate. The problem is being a small, powerless thing in a world full of rules you didn’t make and don’t understand. I feel like Emma now, like everyone is trying to blame me or pry me open or get me to confess and I don’t know what is going on or what the rules are. Like one of those dreams where everyone has been talking about you behind your back, except that in this case, they really have.

At the risk of seeming defeated, I do sit down in the chair Detective Davies has pulled out for me. He sits down right next to me. His techniques are transparent. We’re the only two people seated, right next to each other, on the same side of the table. But I’m not stupid. He’s not really on my side.
Page 69 really captures the complicated relationship between Zoe and her parents, as well as her perception of herself as an outsider, completely on her own. Detective Davies considers her a suspect, Glenn hates her, and her parents are incapable of an emotional connection with her. The central relationship, the one between Zoe and Ava, isn’t actually on this page, although there are hints of the dysfunctional upbringing that helped create it and Zoe’s relationship with Glenn that fractured it. In a post-Gone Girl world, Zoe suspects that Ava’s disappearance is deliberate, and on page 69 she’s more worried about herself than her sister.

While other scenes have more action, the reasons that drive Zoe are all on this page. She ran away to start a new life because of her shame about Glenn and anger at Ava and her parents, and she returns to clear her name because of her love for Emma (and her husband Andrew). She finally has a shot at a functional, loving relationship, until Ava’s disappearance forces Zoe to confront her past literally, as happens on this page.

Throughout Once Two Sisters, whether we’re reading Zoe’s chapters or her sister Ava’s, we experience the world through their deep point of view. So on this page, where Zoe is assessing and commenting on Glenn, her parents, and the detective, it’s like she is talking directly to the reader. Of course, Ava and Zoe tell two different stories and that’s the fun.
Visit Sarah Warburton's website.

My Book, The Movie: Once Two Sisters.

Q&A with Sarah Warburton.

--Marshal Zeringue