Book Review – Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka
In the isolated rural community of Unity, the people of The Movement live a simple life guided by a set of religious principles and laws that are unique to them. Polygamy is the norm, strict obedience is expected and it is customary for young girls to be assigned to much older husbands.
Celeste was born and raised in Unity, yet she struggles to fit in. Perhaps it’s because of Taviana, the girl who has come to live with them and entertains Celeste with forbidden stories, or Jon, the young man she has clandestine meetings with, or maybe it’s the influence of Craig, the outsider she meets on the beach. Whatever it is, she struggles to accept her ordained life. At fifteen she is repulsed at the thought of being assigned to an older man and becoming a sister wife, and she knows for certain she is not cut out to raise children. She wants something more for herself, yet feels powerless to change her destiny because rebelling would bring shame upon her family. Celeste watches as Taviana leaves Unity, followed by Jon, and finally Craig, the boy who has taught her to think “”outside the box.”” Although she is assigned to a caring man, his sixth wife, she is desperately unhappy. How will Celeste find her way out of Unity?
Torn from the headlines and inspired by current events, Sister Wife is a compelling portrait of a community where the laws of the outside world are ignored and where individuality is punished.
Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka is a thought-provoking book about the experiences of three young girls who belong to a polygamist religious sect called The Movement. In this isolated rural community of Unity, the Prophet’s word is law and strict obedience is expected (especially from women and children). Girls are brought up chaste (and uneducated!) – their only destiny to be a ‘child bride’ turned ‘sister wife’ or ‘plural wife’ whose grace are measured by their obedience and fecundity. It’s a world totally estranged from mine – so I was very curious when I started reading it. I thought Sister Wife was well-written (just don’t read the Epilogue!) and it certainly grabbed my attention (not to mention stirring up some strong emotions in me!) I couldn’t help but think about the young girls and women who do belong to such sects in real life.
Sister Wife is told from three separate first person POVs (14-year-old would-be rebel Celeste on whom the story is concentrated on; her devout 13-year-old younger sister Nanette who is a ‘true-believer’ ; and 17-year-old Taviana – an ex-prostitute turned new The Movement disciple). The conflict in Sister Wife starts off when an increasingly rebellious Celeste develops doubts about her being assigned to an older husband when she turns fifteen. Her ‘impure thoughts’ aren’t helped by a burgeoning relationship with Jon (another Unity teen who is himself questioning his faith.) In contrast to Celeste, younger sister Nanette welcomes the attentions of an older man and can’t wait to be a bride herself. Their friend Taviana isn’t 100% sold in the tenets of The Movement, but she’s so grateful for the temporary safety she has found within its confines that it’s a crushing blow when she is asked to leave. I did like Ms. Hrdlitschka’s approach of having all the different perspectives presented to the reader, although it was confusing for me at first to distinguish between the characters as their voices were so similar.
Given the subject matter of the book, I didn’t really expect a happy ending. Ultimately, there are very little options open for a fifteen-year-old Unity girl who has only known that kind of life. There were many instances in the book that were just infuriating, but in the end, I understood why the girls made their choices. Which leads me to why I was so disappointed when I read the Epilogue – it was a total copout, completely turning the entire story on its head. Instead of the relative realism of what came before, the Epilogue presented a Disney-esque ending where everybody (and I do mean EVERYBODY) inexplicably ended up with a happy ending. I felt like if the author wanted that as the real ending, then she should have written a sequel and shown us how the characters reached that happy point.