Julia Glass has a fine turn of phrase, and in her latest novel she has taken on the difficult task of depicting a pair we've all met in life: sisters who tell you they adore each other and spend most of their time together trashing each other. "I See You Everywhere" explores the nature of this dark sibling relationship as the sisters grow up. It's a daunting task and absorbs most of Glass's energy. The sisters are great characters and very well drawn. Clem is a wildlife biologist and adventurer, working in animal hospitals, living life outside the lines with passion and the dark humor of a romantic. Louisa is the elder, cooler, steadier, more analytical and traditional, but just as dark. As "different as white chocolate and seaweed, the Milky Way and a tropical reef" is how Glass puts it.
Their dynamic is interesting, but they are not easy women to like, leaving little for the reader. The novel opens with Louisa heading home for the funeral of an ancient aunt for the express purpose of making sure her sister doesn't get the small cameo brooch the woman owned. Clem yells at one of her endless boyfriends because he's too prepared and too kind. These are our narrators.
Chapters alternate from Clem to Louisa over the years, a good device, which allows both sides of their story. And while it's true that siblings basically fight the same fight over and over, the repetition is not great for a novel. When Louisa says, "I ready myself for conversational combat," I thought, again? In between sparring ("Is that your best shot at sympathy?" and "Another good one I let go, right?") Louisa settles down and Clem grows farther away from society. To further deepen the dynamic, Glass throws in the occasional grenade. It makes noise and fizzles.
One of many examples: The sisters' mother, May, is a dog breeder. Her longtime employee steals them and drives them across the country to California. May screams down the phone to Clem that she will fire him and call the police. The sisters happen to be near him in California and persuade him to return to their mother. We have no idea as to his motive or why he reversed it.
Much worse is Glass stealing the plot of her fellow Boston-area novelist Margot Livesey. In Livesey's "The Missing World" a woman suffers a stroke, incurs amnesia, and forgets that she and her boyfriend have split. Clem has an accident with the same result. Well, you probably know two or three women who have had that happen.
The lead-up to this plot twist is ludicrous. Clem's wallet is stolen while she and her beau are out to dinner. The beau breaks up with her. She stomps off and decides - in her party dress - to hitchhike home. A handsome, young, rich lawyer picks her up in his Mercedes. He becomes her new boyfriend. It's neither plausible nor credible.
The unlikable sisters fly back and forth across the country to each other in times of crisis over the years, and that could almost hold this novel together, except that the supporting characters - mostly men - are uniformly kind and differently weak. These middle-class women have boyfriends with names like Buzz and Zip. When a stuntman named Ray replaces a book-loving guy, Louisa calls him "a shaft of sunlight invading a murky room."
It's a nice line, and that's what makes this sad. Glass can create beautiful evocative moments. Clem is making dinner with her lover, and she watches the freight train pass the window, "but the night was too dark to give me a view of anything but me and R.B. behind me, at the sink, staring down into the pot as it filled with water. How much spaghetti, I wondered, have I shared with how many men?"
Alas, her talent is not enough to carry this novel.
Mary Ambrose is managing editor of New America Media in San Francisco.
Editor's note: This review of Julia Glass's new book "I See You Everywhere" noted the similarities between the novel's plot and that of another book. The reviewer's assertion that Glass was "stealing the plot" of the other book was inappropriate, inaccurate, and should not have been published.