When We Were Sisters, by Beth Miller

When We Were Sisters, by Beth Miller

My friend Kate comes round Wednesdays and, on the first one back after Christmas, she spotted When We Were Sisters on my reading pile. For the rest of the day, whenever I turned my back, she had it open. Wednesdays are a busy day.We go to yoga, the girls do drama, the boys have Scouts. Kate had only made it through a couple of chapters by the time she had to leave. I am a Kind Friend. I don’t like to interrupt the enjoyment of a good book. But I wanted to read it as well… My better feelings won out, but it wasn’t much of a sacrifice in the end. Kate stayed up to two in the morning to finish it, and I had it back by Thursday evening. I’d polished it off by teatime Friday. Didn’t get much else done.

It’s that good.


Laura is in her late thirties. She’s stuck in the back end of Wales, pregnant and worried about her husband’s wandering interest and the lines she’s getting around her eyes. She’s also acerbically funny and used to being the most beautiful woman in the room. Once, she was the most important friend in Melissa’s life. Then Melissa’s (Jewish) dad, Michael, ran off with Laura’s (Catholic Spanish) mum, Olivia, and the door was slammed very firmly shut on that stage of their lives. Now Michael is dying, and his death is the one thing that will bring them all back into the same place. Oh, along with Danny – Melissa’s brother, Laura’s first love, now Orthodox, married, and the father of five.

The story unfolds from two main angles. There’s Laura in 2003, chronicling the awkwardness of adult and family relationships in the present. Being an adult, she can look back at the tumultuous events of the past with the benefit of hindsight. However, adulthood also brings the distorting blur of nostalgia, and Laura is not a narrator to trust implicitly. Then, interspersed, is Melissa’s voice, as recorded in her journal from 1979. In between the highs and lows of crushes, batmitzvah preparations and arguments about make up, Melissa (aka Miffy) is picking up on some worrying undercurrents, though it never crosses her mind that anything could happen to threaten her safe, normal family.

These two first person viewpoints, looping, contrasting and contradicting their way across the decades, build a rich and convincing world. I especially loved the Polaroid tones of London at the tail end of the Seventies: it was never like that growing up in Swindon! I know from reading this post that Miller was heavily pregnant along with Laura, a happenstance that gives real physicality to Laura’s uncomfortable final trimester. I can only hope that the real world birth was less dramatic than the fictional one…

For sisters and lost loves and refound friendships, for regrets and new beginnings and finally growing up, When We Were Sisters takes some beating. I hear that Novel #2 is coming along well: can’t wait!


You can follow Beth on Twitter here and and find her website here

1 Comment

  1. Beth
    17 Feb 2015

    This is the finest review of anything I have ever read and I am certainly not biased… Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and the best summary of the book I’ve seen. Makes the plot seem coherent, even!

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