Hitchcockian Intrigue Abounds in The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon

Amy Slater knows something is lurking around the grounds of the Tower Motel. Since she was sixteen years old, Amy has been burdened with the secrets of her family’s estate: the disappearance of her aunt Sylvie forty years ago, her mother’s dementia, and a mysterious “thing” lurking around the house. Guarding this sordid history has driven away her best friends: Margot and Piper, who, along with Amy, had once spent summers exploring the dilapidated ruins of the motel, skating in the empty pool basins, or breaking into the miniature Tower of London that her grandfather had built for her grandmother, after emigrating from England to London, Vermont.

The Night Sister interweaves the present time of Amy, Margot, and Piper as adults with their high school years exploring the hotel in the 80s, along with the late 50s during the Tower Motel’s heyday. The period when Sylvie and Rose helped run the motel with their parents. They performed a show called the World Famous London Chicken Circus, featuring Sylvie hypnotizing chickens. Sylvie loved putting on shows for guests. She aspired to be an actress in Hollywood, wanting to become Alfred Hitchcock’s next leading blonde. Rose grudgingly performed with her sister, even letting Sylvie practice hypnosis on her—though it never worked. Rose was more reserved than Sylvie, preferring to tend to Lucy, the family’s beloved cow, helping their mother, Charlotte clean the house, or listening to grandma Oma tell her fairy tales.

The repressed secrets of the Tower Motel are brought to the surface when a series of heinous murders occur in the small town. Then, the mysteries of Sylvie’s disappearance, her strange letters to Alfred Hitchcock, and the motel’s secret 29th room can no longer be hidden, no matter how strange and twisted the truth may seem.

Besides the suspenseful plot, The Night Sister, contains a poignant portrayal of adolescence. Margot, Amy, and Piper’s complicated friendship, along with the strife between Sylvie and Rose, is deftly developed over the duration of the novel, adding a dose of pathos to the tale. Their moments of longing, inadequacy, and self-doubt form into petty jealousies, secrecy, and resentment which individuates each character’s own stake in the happenings occurring at the motel.

The Tower of London, an obvious symbol of secrecy and imprisonment, looming over the grounds of the motel, is the place where the teenagers dwell in these moments. It is the setting where they covet what’s tragically beyond their reach—such is the inherent strife and frustration of adolescence, evoked in this crude, two-story replica of an old castle.

Unfortunately, McMahon does not maintain the same standard in regards to her secondary characters. The father, his real name is never given—a symptom of how little he was developed—felt superfluous, especially in contrast to Charlotte, the mother. He exists only as the archetypical father figure, calm and stoic, lacking any personality. The same lack of precision could be applied to the strand of letters Sylvie had written to Hitchcock interspersed throughout the novel. They read like diary-entries rather than letters; like a storage compartment used by the author to cram in more exposition.

Overlooking its flaws, The Night Sister offers a suspenseful tale. Jennifer McMahon’s clearly a gifted storyteller. Her subtle and deceptive plots would remind any reader of an illusionist, luring her audience along like Sylvie’s hypnotized chickens before waiting to the last moment to pull back the curtain.

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2/5 Stars

The Night Sister
By
Jennifer McMahon
Doubleday
August 4th, 2015
336 pages

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