I am an inveterate reader, and as I've mentioned on this blog before, it often gets me into trouble. I have overdue books that I have to read quickly before returning them. I'm always paying overdue fines. I sometimes (gasp!) let my girls watch movies because I can't stop reading something I really like long enough to play ball outside. So this week I've been racing through a few overdue teen books, including some nonfiction. But I saved Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters for last, and I'm glad I did. I read a review of it in the Sept./Oct. 2010 Horn Book and I had read Standiford's last book, How to Say Goodbye in Robot, earlier this fall, and really liked it. This one was even better.
The story begins at Christmas in the Sullivans' Baltimore home. There are six Sullivan children, and straight off the bat, you can tell this family is a little quirkier than most. All the kids have nicknames - Norrie, Takey, Sassy - that don't seem to hint at their real name. They call their mother by her first name, and call their father Daddy-O. The girls drive around in an old baby blue Mercedes, and each child moves into the coveted tower room before they go off to college. But when they go to their grandmother's house for Christmas dinner, things get a little weirder.
Their grandmother, whom they call Almighty, states that one of the Sullivan children has deeply offended her recently, and if a written confession is not in her hands by New Year's Eve, she will cut them all out of her will. No one is sure which Sullivan child has offended her, but it seems most likely that it is one of the teenage Sullivan sisters. Each of them believes they have done it, and they each write their own confessions. Each of the girls has been very busy that fall, and as their stories unfold, it seems possible that they are the one to offend Almighty.
The confessions are the strength of the book. They begin with Norrie (short for Norris, if you are wondering). Norrie is a senior in high school who signs up for a speed reading class at Johns Hopkins early that fall. It is when she meets a graduate student in her class that Norrie, who has always been responsible and sweet, begins to change. The big event looming over Norrie's fall is her December Cotillion, which is a very fancy party to introduce young ladies to society. Her family, especially Almighty, expects her to go and perform admirably at Cotillion, including having a suitable, society date. But is this what Norrie wants? Is she able to do it for her family? I suspect you know the answer to that question, or we wouldn't be reading Norrie's confession.
Jane and Sassy are Norrie's two younger sisters (but both in high school). They are also in trouble with Almighty this Christmas. Parts of their confessions are interwoven through Norrie's, but each girl has a chance to speak for herself. What's interesting to me about all three girls is that these may not be the kinds of confessions you are expecting. None of the three of them are sleeping around, drinking or taking drugs. They aren't stealing or breaking the law. Indeed, to most of us, they seem like good girls.
But not to their grandmother, Almighty. Part of the problem is that no one is exactly sure what they've done to make Almighty angry, One of the biggest problems in this book is the gap between the girls' lives and Almighty's expectations. In their own way, each one of the girls is pushing back against Almighty's society rules. None of them really want to go to Cotillion, but feel obligated to do so by Almighty's power and influence in their family. It all comes down to money. Obviously things have changed since Almighty was their age, when girls did not stand up for themselves and what they wanted. And all three of the Sullivans feel they cannot escape her disapproval, even though they want to live their own lives.
I also wanted to mention the town of Baltimore. Standiford's other book, How to Say Goodbye in Robot, is also set in Baltimore. I love the settings in both of these books, and I felt like Baltimore was almost another character in the book. The book is full of Baltimore locations, including shops, streets and of course Johns Hopkins. It is evident that Standiford loves Baltimore, and it really comes through in this book. The book wouldn't have had the same atmosphere set in New York City or even Washington DC.
I will say this about the Sullivan sisters - I couldn't get enough of them. I wanted to hear what happened next to all of them, even if it is just their everyday life. I couldn't bear to say goodbye to them. So when their confessions ended, I was left feeling deflated by the ending of the book. I don't want to spoil it, because I definitely recommend this book. But I just felt the ending didn't have all the thoughtfulness Standiford put into creating the Sullivan family's lives. But I'll still beg her to write more about them, because I loved these girls.
Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters. Natalie Standiford. Scholastic, 2010.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark library