Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Names My Sisters Call Me by Megan Crane

Names My Sisters Call Me
by Megan Crane

The lipstick on the cover should’ve been my first clue. Or rather, the lipstick, lip gloss and Burt’s Bees-like lip balm because Oh-ho-ho isn’t it funny how women’s personalities are wrapped up in their make-up choices? Gee, thanks, cover artist, for being so insightful about my gender!

Let’s not judge the book by its cover – No, let’s judge it on all the other clichés written inside.

Because I’m moving in a few months, I wanted to know whether or not to put this in the Goodwill box. I’d acquired the novel at a bookstore giveaway, and it’s an advance reading copy, meaning it was technically subject to change before the final version hit shelves sometime in 2008. For that reason, I did not want to judge the writing too harshly, feeling it was important to give the story a fair shake.

I tried, I really did. Then I’d read stuff like this:

I was given to understand from her tone that ‘tension’ was to San Franciscans what sloth was to East Coast types (i.e. anathema).

My, that’s a big literary word you used there. I really needed that parenthetical to make the proper comparison.

Names My Sisters Call Me is essentially three hundred pages of overplayed themes in a story that could’ve been interesting. Courtney Cassel is engaged to her longtime boyfriend Lucas, an announcement that is met by her family with ten minutes of congratulations followed by an hour of drama. Her oldest sister, Norah, is still fuming over the day that middle child, Raine, drunkenly ruined her wedding reception and then ran away to California. Norah and Raine are so different from each other (because of course they are). Norah is a domineering, Type A personality, while Raine is the “free-spirited” hippie artist. No one but their mother has talked to Raine in six years, and Norah wants to know if Courtney will “betray” her and invite Raine to the wedding.

Conveniently, Lucas has business in San Francisco, so Courtney tags along to see her sister. And even more conveniently — because this wouldn’t be a lipstick cover novel without engagement complications — she will also see her semi-secret ex-boyfriend, Matt Cheney. Matt is Raine’s best friend, and he ended his relationship with Courtney the night he ran off to California with her sister. They reunite, and yes, let the fireworks begin.

“Let the fireworks begin,” by the way, is one of the few overused phrases that I don’t think appeared in the book. By page 198, I decided to make note of all the platitudes within a single page:

-“not going to tiptoe around”
-“facing the music”
-“draw a line and be done with it”
-“everyone else is in an alternate dimension”
-“let bygones be bygones”
-“Raine gets a free pass”
-“This is the only family we have.”

One page. The thing is, I would be just fine with a light and fluffy family drama story every so often, if only I wasn’t continually distracted by the way it was presented. Normally while reading a book for review purposes, I’ll write down quotes that I enjoy as I go, thinking I might reference them later. This time, I had quotes paired with comments like “They’re not delightful neuroses — They’re raging insecurities,” and “God, thanks for spelling that out for me!”

The attitudes towards men, while at least a change from “I need a man to be complete!” chick-lit, still feel false. Even when her fiancee is being one of the few reasonable voices, Courtney’s reaction is straight out of a high school script:

“I thought you already doubted she’d forgive you for going to California in the first place," Lucas pointed out. "So if she’s already not going to forgive you, who cares?"

Stupid male logic. I didn’t dignify that with a response.

Jokes with Lucas usually revolve around the security of his manhood, and any sex is very loosely implied, to the point where I wasn’t even sure it had happened. It’s not as though I require my books to get all hot and steamy (though, hey, feel free), but ending a scene with a playful swat and then “no room to think about anything else,” doesn’t really make matters clear.

When it comes to Matt Cheney, Courtney becomes even more insecure, and she never fails to remind us again and again that he makes her feel like she did that night six years ago, or when she was 13 and still had an unrequited crush. Yes, we need this information, but please stop saying it every five pages.

Often the book attempts to be funny and fails, in the same way that bad comedians present jokes with “look how clever I am” smirks:

I was an old pro at worshiping the Porcelain Goddess.
Trust Matt Cheney to bring out the worst in me.

...even if my legs were pale enough to blind unsuspecting pedestrians.

Writing funny is hard, but even with my rusty skills, I know there are at least five different ways those bits could have been better. Again, I don’t know what all made it into the final manuscript, but I’m surprised that what I read made it into an advance reading copy. Shouldn’t an editor have scribbled all over this? Or are there really women who think these “insights” are original? No wait, I know there are. Just read the cover blurbs.

Another thing — Matt Cheney is almost always referred to by first and last name, as though he is a celebrity. Every character but Raine does it, which is weird, since he’s supposedly known them all since childhood. He is of course the brooding musician, all tattoos and leaning forlorn against doorways — so different from fiancee Lucas, who is so affable and works in internet securities.

Crane also has a habit of writing the same thing twice. She makes an assertion, then says it again, all within the same paragraph. My copy editor fingers started twitching for a pen after reading passages like this:

If I had pointed out how alike they were in this, right down to their matching fake smiles, they would never have believed me. But I saw how obvious it was they were sisters. The same, despite their differences.

Did we need those last two sentences? No.

Though this novel was filled with flaws both major and minor, some moments I understood. Courtney works as a cello player in the second Philadelphia Symphony, and as a former cello player and major music fan in general, I related to her passion. When she talked about how playing made her feel, I wished the whole story could be like that — an honest exploration rather than lame attempts to be witty. Instead, I’m afraid this book will have to find a new home.

Book #19/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.


  1. This book sounds GOD-AWFUL.

    Your review, on the other hand, was entertaining and well-written. Kudos.

  2. Well thanks!

    Yes, consider this my official warning against this book. You can make fun of it without actually having to read it.

    Maybe if this were a first novel, I'd be more forgiving, but it's her fourth. FOURTH.