Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Night Sister.
Though McMahon’s thriller begins in 2013, with a tragedy at the Tower Motel in London, Vermont, the tangled family history began generations earlier, in 1955. Sisters Rose and Sylvia Slater live at the motel run by their parents, a popular destination for travelers on Route 6, with a faux Tower of London rising behind the units. But the interstate highway deals a fatal blow to the motel, just another failing business invisible from the highway. The sisters are happy there as children, but by 1960, Sylvie is dreaming of a career in Hollywood, penning letters to director Alfred Hitchcock. The more practical Rose--the dark one to Sylvie’s blonde beauty--is content to remain at home, fascinated by the frightening stories told by their German grandmother, tales that give Sylvia nightmares. Later, when Sylvie disappears, everyone assumes she has run away to seek her fame in Hollywood.
McMahon’s tale unfolds through generations and relationships, new memories stacked upon old, scary stories and family lore trickling from one family to another. In 1989, Amy, Rose Slater’s daughter, bonds with sisters Piper and Margaret, the three girls inseparable until one summer when everything changes and a rift becomes a deepening chasm over time. Piper and Margot have little contact with Amy or her family until the tragedy in 2013. Still in Vermont, Margot is about to have a baby when she learns of Amy’s fate, immediately calling Piper in LA. A photograph was found at the scene, an image of Rose and Sylvia that sets off warning bells for the sisters, rekindling fears that what the three friends had chosen to ignore as teens has resurfaced. This is a mystery Margot and Piper cannot solve without poking into the corners of a murky history, a past they’d hoped was left behind.
The narrative segues back and forth through 1955, 1960, 1989, and 2013, from recent events to the days when the Tower Motel was teeming with visitors and two very different siblings harbored private ambitions.
Complications arise once more as Amy, Margot and Piper believe they will be close forever, that nothing can come between them--not even Jason Hawke, who has loved Amy since childhood but marries Margot, fathering her baby. It is a tale meant to be spoken in whispers in the dark of night, when anything is possible and the words “29 Rooms”--the cryptic message on the photograph at the scene--are significant.
The setting is appropriately eerie, a once-thriving motel and stylized Tower of London long neglected, choking in weeds and the winding tentacles of time, recurring scenes of impressionable girls caught up in fantastical ideas, the porous boundaries between worlds where the night holds mystery and terror. Fashioning a modern-day Grimm’s tale, the author taps into the conflicted hopes of vulnerable girls, planting seeds that still bear fruit. The plot builds with each generation, the visiting German grandmother opening a door that cannot be shut again. That said, the Hitchcock reference served as a distraction for me, suggesting a twisted tale, but one with a logical explanation. The insertion of the paranormal dilutes the novel’s impact for this reader, a plot device that implies validity in an otherworldly concept.