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‘Island Girls,’ set in Nantucket, examines sisterhood

No one knows the beauty and allure of Nantucket better than author Nancy Thayer. And even after 23 novels, this resident of the island never tires of sharing it with her readers.

But the idyllic summer setting isn’t the real focus of “Island Girls,” a 2013 novel that explores the complex bonds between sisters.

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The story is set in motion by the unexected passing of Rory Randall, who has three adult daughters from three different wives. His death forces the daughters — Arden, Meg, and Jenny — to deal not only with their grief but with a will that requires the three estranged sisters to go to the family’s Nantucket home and live together for one summer. If they can see the summer through together, they will inherit the $2 million home and can sell it and split the proceeds.

The sisters have seen little of one another over the years and each harbors resentments and jealousies stemming from their teenage years, when Jenny’s mother banished Arden and Meg from Nantucket after a youthful transgression.

Now, the three sisters must struggle to navigate the tangled fallout from childhood wounds and present-day pressures in love and work.

“I have been a year-round Nantucket resident since 1984 and it inspires me in so many ways,” Thayer said in an interview. “The beauty of the island refreshes me, the winter provides a quiet time to write, and the charm of walking around town and looking at beautiful hundred-year-old homes works like magic to inspire ideas.”

Yet she quickly added: “Family and friends are the basic themes of all my novels. This time I focused on sister relationships.”

As for her own life, Thayer said: “I grew up in a normal family — whatever that is — in Kansas. My parents loved me and doted on me as the oldest child — until my adorable, blonde, blue-eyed baby sister came along when I was 8. Suddenly, I was Cinderella, being ‘mother’s helper,’ while my baby sister was waited on hand and foot.”

But as they got older, Thayer said, her sister became one of her best friends.

“We especially bonded when we made fun of our parents. All this is a mystery to me — the jealousy I felt and still feel, my parents’ lack of insight into the different ways they treated us, and how close my sister and I are now.”

While Thayer is still amazed by the complexity of sister relationships, “Island Girls” skillfully portrays the intimate conflicts that arise from this bond.

As a psychologist, I have discovered that in therapy, women describe their relationships with their sisters in extremes.

One woman in her 50s recently told me: “I love my sister completely, and there is no other person, not even our mother, who knows me better. We share lots of history, we cheer each other’s successes, and commiserate over our failures.

“Yet, at the same time, my sister will be the first one to point out my faults, offer her opinions, put me in my place, and have the power to transform me into an insecure kid, all over again.”

But there’s a strong upside to this sometimes exasperating dynamic, according to a 2010 study conducted by Laura Padilla-Walker and her colleagues at Brigham Young University.

“Sisters seem to help siblings avoid deeply negative emotions,” said the report, which involved 395 families. “Children and adolescents with sisters were significantly less likely to indicate feeling lonely, unloved, guilty, self-conscious, and fearful. It didn’t matter whether the sister was older or younger.”

This research has been further supported by other psychologists, such as Liz Wright and Tony Cassidy, who found that, “Young people who grow up with at least one sister tend to be happier and more optimistic.” British researcher Judy Dunn found the same pattern.

So where does that leave us in our understanding of sisterhood?

While we expect loyalty from a sister and imagine that these are always close relationships, it is clearly more complicated. While sisters may be the longest relationship we have over our lifetime, it may be that there is simply more opportunity for conflict and rivalry. Yet perhaps it this very thing that equips us with the essential skills of managing competition, conflict, and anger that occur in all intimate relationships.

Thayer thoroughly agrees.

“I’ve read a lot of sentimental quotes about sisters being lifelong friends, and it is true there is an intimacy from growing up in the same family, but at base we are all simply human beings with the whole mess of psychological stew everyone has,” she said.

“There are always spats and jealousies . . . but I think these conflicts are skill-building.”

Thayer concluded: “ I hope my readers will simply enjoy ‘Island Girls’ as a good read. If there is a message, though, it’s that sisters and blended families can love each other, fight with each other, and then forgive and make up with each other.”

Nancy Harris can be reached at drnancy23@gmail.com.
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