Why Sisters in Law?
September 2nd, 2009
Around two years ago I had a succession of phone calls from friends: one who was upset about the family’s proposed Christmas arrangements, another talking about her divorce and another was trying to sort out problems with an elderly parent. Sisters-in-law featured strongly in all of them, either as part of the support system or the problem. It’s the women who glue a family together, and, as I’ve got no sisters, (just three brothers), for me, that means sisters-in-law. But we are all very different – ages, professions, backgrounds, family customs…and so are everyone else’s.
I thought about how important sisters-in-law are in a family, and realised that one side effect of divorce that is rarely mentioned is that you are forced to change your sister-in-law. Just as you have come to genuinely love a woman who was completely strange to you when you first met her, then suddenly you’re expected to ditch her and embrace someone new. You don’t have any choice in the matter, and the rest of the family, particularly your brother or your husband’s brother, may even consider you unreasonable if you don’t instantly warm to her.
I knew there was a novel in the topic of sisters-in-law and divorce, and everyone I spoke to responded so powerfully and immediately that I couldn’t wait to write it. My editor at Sphere, Joanne Dickinson, says that every time she brought it to a meeting, everyone stopped talking about publishing and started talking about their sisters-in-law instead. I found the same thing when I was writing it, and there was always a certain amount of competition as to whose was the troublesome sister-in-law and who was the great support – the wife’s sister or the husband’s. Although the men usually beat a strategic retreat to their equivalent of the potting shed after a few beady glances from their wives. I think that possibly the only reason why male comedians use mothers-in-law as a stock joke, but are curiously silent on the issue of sisters-in-law is probably because they’re far too frightened of their wives’ sisters and their brothers’ wives to take them on.
Anyway, it’s been a sadly neglected literary topic: since the deliciously greedy Fanny Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, who persuades her husband that his half-sisters don’t need any money from their father’s estate and Natasha who is the driving destructive force in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, there hasn’t been a lot written about this pivotal relationship in a family, so this is an attempt to redress the balance (and the only time I will ever, ever be able to compare myself to Chekhov).
I hope you enjoy it, and I’d love to hear any comments you’d like to leave on this website.