There is a little of Hansel and Gretel in The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters. More than ten years ago, Lily and Mabel Rollow were abandoned by their parents: their mother left them with their grandmother in rural Nebraska not long after their father’s suicide.
As the book opens, the sisters are living alone in the gray house after their grandmother takes off for Florida following Lily’s graduation, “smiling and wearing a brand-new red dress” and leaving her mess of a junk shop to them, a “secondhand shop where nothing ever changed hands.” The sisters have mere crumbs to lead them to their faded past. They know none of the details of their father’s suicide, except that it involved a gun: “They didn’t know if he’d put it in his mouth or in his ear, didn’t know if it had taken apart his head or had left a simple clean hole.” Their mother had faked their father’s suicide note:
“Always before, Mabel had hated the letter, this evidence of their mother’s deception, but she’d grown to need it. As its words dissolved and the paper fell apart, as it slowly ceased to exist, it became something true. This lie became an honest portrait of Mabel’s mother and her confusion.”
Mabel, 21, and Lily, 19, are inevitably preoccupied with death and loss. Even their objects of interest have tragedy written all over them. Lily’s boyfriend, Jordan, wears his on one scarred wrist, and he and Lily have a shared fascination with the stories of serial killer Charlie Starkweather. Mabel finds herself drawn to a boy who has lost his sister in a swimming pool accident, leading her to conclude that she should only be with people who are “just sick about missed tea parties and other lost minutes.”
There is no doubt that the sisters have had a hard life and are searching for their place in the world. And they take it upon themselves to put together the pieces of their past. But the two are cut from different cloth and have their own ways of dealing with this. Lily, the younger and more headstrong sister, takes off with Jordan in a stolen car to confront their mother in Mexico. But without her older sister around to shock, Lily becomes less defiant:
“She really did want to see her mother again but only if her mother wanted to be seen. The slightest bit of disappointment on her mother’s face, and Lily wouldn’t know what to say or do.”
Mabel is left behind to tend shop and chase their father’s ghost. She takes a plastic toy panther to a brain-damaged glue-sniffer who is reported to communicate with the afterlife.
It isn’t easy to feel for Lily and Mabel. The sisters are old souls, very much like eccentric grandaunts whose exploits might enthrall you at Christmas family gatherings. You listen, enrapt in their lively adventures and quirky anecdotes, and you may even think you understand them - but in the end, you realize you don’t know them at all.
Like the antique store, this book is filled with all kinds of clutter. That is where Schaffert, who himself grew up in the Nebraska farmbelt, excels – in the fragments snatched from Lily and Mabel’s childhood, the newspaper clippings the sisters collect of tragedies, their dreams, the other eccentric characters who dot the lonely Nebraska landscape (the barber keeps a collection of old Suzanne Pleshette movies at his shop), and the very junk that invades the Rollows’ store, stolen from “the emptiest of ruins.” However, all this sometimes threatens to overflow and overthrow the story, but like Lily, who plucks “the most meaningless junk from the antique shop” and turns it into something desirable, Schaffert has managed to rein in all these pieces to form a whimsical first novel that is a bittersweet and lively read.