I read this on my Kindle last week in a single day, as I was at home alone all evening, bored, and in search of something light and entertaining. I’ve read some other books by Sinéad Moriarty, specifically about sisters, thought I had reviewed them on the blog, but can’t find them, and actually they’re not hyperlinked in my 2014 list. In any case, the upshot was that I very much enjoyed them, particularly because they were about three sisters, and I have a soft spot for stories like that. This is a little earlier than those, and I was surprisingly disappointed in how it played out, actually.
In one of the many fantastic reviews for Sinéad Moriarty’s fourth novel, In My Sister’s Shoes, the reviewer praised Sinéad’s ability to apply ‘the light tender touch to dark, painful subjects’. It’s a perfect description of how Sinéad tells the story of a younger sister stepping in to help out when her older sister is diagnosed with cancer. In a similar way to Marian Keyes, Sinéad manages to balance light and dark with wonderful finesse, warmth and humour.
Kate O’Brien is thirty and has very little to think about except trying to keep her balance as she totters up London’s media-land ladder.
Fiona O’Brien is Kate’s responsible older sister – with a husband, twin boys, a dog and now … a life-changing problem.
It’s a problem that means Kate going back to Dublin. Pronto. There she finds herself stepping into Fiona’s shoes – and discovering that she’s definitely not cut out to be a domestic goddess. On top of that, the ex she thought she’d got over years ago turns up to haunt her.
Will either of the O’Brien sisters survive? And even if they do, can either of them slip back into their old shoes ever again?
Sinéad Moriarty’s novels have sold over half a million copies in Ireland and the UK and she is a four times nominee for the popular fiction Irish Book Award. She has won over readers and critics telling stories that are funny, humane, moving and relevant to modern women. In My Sister’s Shoes is Sinéad at her very best.
Sinéad Moriarty lives with her family in Dublin. Her other titles are: The Baby Trail; A Perfect Match; From Here to Maternity; Keeping It In the Family (also titled Whose Life Is It Anyway?); Pieces of My Heart; Me and My Sisters and This Child of Mine.
I didn’t have a problem with this book per se. In fact, I really quite enjoyed the middle section. I liked Kate’s finding herself, reconnecting with her brother, father, and sister, and her realisation that Dublin actually… isn’t that bad a place to live. Kate’s interactions with the strictures of her nephews’ lives, through their nursery teacher, their food likes and dislikes, and Fiona’s rigid structure for them. Kate taking on the role of nanny is quite sweet, really, as she learns to love these little kids in a way that she never did before as a disconnected weekend visitor.
Kate’s coming to understand herself, and her desires as well is really lovely to see. She’s not happy in her career in media in London, but has it in her head that this is the only place – and the only way – to succeed. So when she moves to Dublin and has to reconsider her career plans and her attitude to where she’s going in life, it’s really gratifying to see her critically examine this.
But actually, I have two major problems with this book, and that is the start, and the end. At the beginning of the book, the only reason Kate comes home is because her brother in law emotionally blackmails her, pointing out that her sister Fiona effectively became her mother after their own mother passed away when they were young. He uses this to pressure Kate into giving up her job, her flat, and her life, and moving home to care for their twins. And this is presented (in the narrative) as a little underhanded, but generally an ok thing for him to do. It is NOT an okay thing for him to do. It is nasty, thoughtless, and really, really incredibly selfish. It should have been Kate’s decision, it should have been asked, not demanded of her, and the brother in law should have been painted as actually a complete prick for demanding something like that. A complete sea change and giving up your job when you’ve just landed your big break – and for Kate this is a big break, she’s finally gotten her own television show – is a decision that you have to make for yourself, and never a decision that should be made for you.
Even worse, once Kate makes this incredibly selfless decision, and gives up her job to move home to look after her sister’s children, her dad gives her flak for it? My mind was really boggled at this point. The practicalities of this entire arrangement also passed me by – what was Kate living on for the months she was in Ireland? Fresh air? Was she eating her father’s food while he subbed her? Did her sister and brother-in-law pay her a stipend? What happened her flat? Did she give it up? Were all of her goods put in storage? Was she still paying rent on it? Did she have savings for this? Did her sister’s cancer mean a huge financial hit for Kate, as she was no longer earning, but still had all of her outgoings? None of this was discussed and, honestly, it’s not like London to Dublin is an easy commute. Kate just abandoned her life, wholesale, and nothing else was ever really mentioned about it. I’ve moved to London on a whim, effectively (from PhD application deadline to moving day was less than two months) and it still led to a lot of life admin, and there was plenty I needed to sort out in Ireland the next times I came back. But the narrative was more concerned with how Kate was *growing as a person* than with how her life had actually been blown apart.
Speaking of the brother in law (who really is an irredeemable prick), there is a subplot with him which is disappointingly resolved. He (and I’ve just remembered his name is Mark) is generally, well, a terrible person. He’s disconnected from his family, he’s self-centred, he’s focused entirely on the wrong things – his wife is potentially dying, for Christ’s sake, and he’s spending all his time at work. There is one point that he comes up good on, but the rest of him – that he blackmailed his sister in law into looking after his children, that he’s totally disconnected from his family, that he can’t take his wife to her chemotherapy appointments, that he tries to abandon his children in an airport – are left just… glossed over. I realise that if you think your wife is going to die, you’re probably scared and want to retreat into familiar routines, but this is just accepted by the narrative and Mark gets to continue to be the big academic professor, without any repercussions or personal growth. Also, it’s said that his wife is every bit as smart as he is, but it’s her career who took the back seat when they got married. And that’s not inspected at all. Ugh. Basically, I hated Mark as a character and as a person, and I hated how everyone interacted with him. It was a total headwreck even seeing him on the page, and every time I thought about how he was acting, I got angry. Not because he was being a dickhead – I’ve got no problems with dickhead characters, and love to hate them. No, my real problem here is that the narrative never acknowledged that he was being a selfish, self-absorbed man-baby. It just kind of brushed it off as that’s Mark, he’s career focused. For some inexplicable reason, it’s okay for Mark to be career focused to the detriment of caring for his wife when she has cancer, and his children when they’re going through probably the scariest experience of their entire lives. But when Kate was similarly career focused, and didn’t want to give up everything to care for her sister and nephews, this was a bad thing. There is a distinct flavour of double standards here, and it’s not hard to see the lines along which it’s drawn.
And honestly, if the narrative presented it as Mark being sexist, and this being really disappointing and a character flaw for him, but Kate being the bigger person and allowing it because she loves her sister, I would’ve been okay with that. But it’s not. It’s never critically analysed, and never pointed out how very sexist and disappointing that attitude is.
I had other complaints as well, largely about how Sam, the love interest, deals with Kate and her career aspirations in London. But I’ve wittered on long enough about Mark now, and to make the same points about Sam would be repetitive. Overall, I think my issue with this book was that it presented Kate as career-focused, which is great, but didn’t actually make that mean anything. When push came to shove, apparently it wasn’t a big deal for her to give up her career for her sister, or her boyfriend, and it was just expected that that was what she would do. Not because the industries in Ireland are just as good (which the book could have made more of), but because of… some reasons that were never really made clear.
I originally rated this book three stars, but as I’ve been writing this review, I’ve gotten angry all over again about the casual sexism which is rife throughout the book and never critically examined. I actually generally really like Sinéad Moriarty’s book, and enjoy reading them, but this one was really, really disappointing. And I think the reason why it was so disappointing was because there were so many opportunities for the book to actually examine the motivations of the characters and unpick them in a way which really made sense. Kate’s conviction that you can only really make it if you make it in London is, frankly, misguided, and if her career decisions at the end of the book were motivated by a desire to be closer to her family and an acknowledgement that the media industries in Ireland are actually really complex and dynamic, I would’ve been totally on board with that. But actually her decision was motivated by wanting a boy who was totally unwilling to make compromises, but just expected her to bend entirely. Which is the same as how the book started. Kate’s journey goes from giving up her career at the behest of her brother-in-law to making her career much more precarious at the behest of her boyfriend. There is no personal growth here, and no justification for why Kate came to this decision herself. Moriarty is capable of so much better than this.
It would have been so easy for Kate’s personal arc to go from ‘I must succeed in London, because London is the only place where it counts’ to ‘I will succeed in Dublin, where the industries are vibrant, my family are nearby, and I have a lovely boyfriend’. And that would have been a satisfying and emotional character growth arc. But Kate never realises for herself that she’s unhappy in London, but just does what she’s told by other people in her life – mostly men. And that, I think, is the most disappointing thing of all. This book was so close to being great, with just a little bit more critical analysis. But for me, it completely missed the point.