Book Review: Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Suspense
Series: Book 2 of Mary Sutter
Publisher: Viking (February 27, 2018)
Length: 416 pages
Author Information: Website
I picked up Winter Sisters thinking it would be a mystery-thriller, when in fact it turned out to be more of an atmospheric historical drama. That said, this was a poignant and fantastic novel; its plot, which started as a slow-builder, quickly saw its tensions rise to become a series of heart-pounding events, eventually culminating in a courtroom scene of epic proportions. Even better, this second installment of the Mary Sutter series can be enjoyed as a standalone without having to read the first book.
It is 1879, and the city of Albany, New York finds itself pummeled by one of the greatest blizzards of the century. Tragedy strikes the O’Donnells as both parents are killed, and in the whiteout conditions, their daughters 10-year-old Emma and 7-year-old Claire go missing. Mary Sutter, who is close to the family, is devastated by the deaths of her friends and the disappearance of their two little girls. Determined to find them, Mary writes to her mother and niece in Paris, who quickly return to America to join in the search effort.
For weeks, Mary and her relatives continue to ask questions and look around, refusing to give up on Emma and Claire despite pushback from members of their community. The police are no help either, having long since declared the girls dead, and a funeral was even held for them with their parents. A tip from an unexpected source, however, gives Mary a different but disturbing new perspective on her search. The more she digs, the more she discovers about the dirty secrets and corruption in her city.
Well, if you’ve read the book, then you’ll know what happened to the girls. If not, I’m not going to say, but I will warn that the details are awful and tough to read. This book is not for the faint of heart and if you know reading about terrible atrocities committed on innocents (especially children) will upset you, I would recommend against picking this up. The story is told in roughly three parts: first, the set-up with the blizzard and the disappearance of Emma and Claire; second, the search for the girls and the result of those efforts; and finally, the aftermath along with the criminal trial. The first part is probably the slowest, with the pacing picking up around halfway through the second. I won’t deny getting through the first half of the book was at times a struggle, but the courtroom drama at the end made it all worth it.
As stated above, you do not need to read the first book, My Name is Mary Sutter, in order to follow the story of Winter Sisters. As a matter of fact, the prime focus appears to be on the case of the missing girls, with all the characters involved feeling almost incidental. Mary, however, is like the glue that holds everything together; everyone has a connection to her in some way, so that readers get a wider and more detailed perspective. A former Civil War surgeon, Mary now operates a clinic with her husband, though she also defies the laws by giving treatment to those who would not otherwise have access to medical attention, such as prostitutes. As I have a soft spot for historical characters who are female doctors, Mary was a joy to read about, and I loved her fierce passion for her job and her conviction to do what’s right. In an era where the medical profession (and society in general) was dominated by men, our protagonist rebelled against social norms and fought hard to give girls and women a voice. It made me want to pick up the first book for a chance to get to know her better, as well as to read about her experiences in the Civil War.
Winter Sisters was also a gut-wrenching read at times, and there were certainly moments of anger, horror, or frustration where I just wanted to squeeze my eyes shut and scream myself hoarse. But there were also plenty of tender, touching scenes involving family and friendship, not to mention the role of love in healing from trauma. I thought the author treated all her characters with the sensitivity and patience they deserved throughout their personal and collective experiences, allowing us to connect to them on a deeply emotional level.
All told, Winter Sisters was a powerful, richly written novel. Robin Oliveira transports readers to post-Civil War era New York, delivering a historical drama that is both heart-rending and full of suspense. With the caveat that some of the more horrific and disturbing details can make this one too unbearable to read at times, I still think fans of courtroom intrigue will especially enjoy the book’s plot and the way it ends. If you’re anything like me though, you’ll probably find the characters and their relationships to be the novel’s greatest strengths. Overall, I enjoyed this novel and would recommend it with all my heart.