By GWEN OREL
There is a different reality of family for every person in it, says Nancy Star, author of “Sisters One, Two, Three.”
“Who’s to say which memory is right or wrong?” the Montclair author asked. “I have one sister, she had a memory of a certain food my mother served when my father was on a business trip.
“I have no memory of that.
“It struck me, in a million years I would never have that memory. There is a secret code even in a happy family. A family is a living organism.”
The secrets in the novel “Sisters One, Two, Three,” which came out in January, have more weight than what mom made for dinner when: a mother has hidden from her teenage daughter that in addition to her living sister, she had a brother who died, as well as a sister who disappeared from her life.
The mother, Ginger, was a young girl in the 1970s, dealing with her own histrionic mother, Glory, whose relationship with truth was iffy. The book takes place in the ’70s, when Ginger was one of four children, and also 30 years later, when Ginger is an overprotective worrier over her own daughter, Julia.
When Glory dies, the missing sister reappears and all three return to Martha’s Vineyard, where an accident happened when they were children.
“There are clearly two sets of mothers and daughters,” said Star. “The main character as a daughter and the main character as a mother.
“I have an interest in families. Behind every closed door of a house, there’s something going on that’s a secret. No matter how anybody presents themselves, there’s usually a more complicated past.”
She began thinking about secrets at a dinner party when someone mentioned that she hadn’t told her daughter she’d been married before.
None of the characters are based on her own family, Star said.
“The only character I took from real life is the dog. Echo is based on a Welsh springer who isn’t with us, but is memorialized in Echo.”
Julia, the rebellious teen, was inspired by a YouTube video of a college girl doing performance art on the streets of Wesleyan on weekends.
“I thought, her poor mother,” Star said.
Then she saw more videos of the girl, and realized the girl had grown up to be the performer Amanda Palmer.
Star said she wondered, “What’s that like, to have a child who goes in a direction you don’t expect? You might misinterpret because you don’t understand what it’s going to be.”
Star is a featured author in the BooksNJ Literary Festival in Paramus on June 11. She will also speak at the Chilmark Library in Martha’s Vineyard, where much of the book is set. In August, she will participate in the Bergen County Cooperative Library System “Invite an Author” program. The BCCLS system includes Montclair. That program mostly sets up events for the year, Star explained. (For more information, visit Star’s website, nancystarauthor.com.)
Local bestselling author Christina Baker Kline gave the book a rave blurb, describing it as “a searing portrait of a family haunted by tragedy and fractured by the toxic power of secrets.” Kline, author of “Orphan Train” and “A Piece of the World,” said by email that Star is “one of the most dedicated, thoughtful writers I know. She has been a model for me in terms of staying flexible along the way and redefining her career.”
The two women are in a writers’ group together. Before Star was a novelist, she was an executive in the movie business. As vice president of development of acquisitions for New York and London for the Sam Goldwyn company, it was her job to look for material.
“I couldn’t support myself as a writer, so I got a job in a creative field,” Star said. She was always sympathetic to the writers, though “in the movie business, they’re on the bottom rung.
“I always thought they were right.”
It was when she became a mother herself that she took a leave of absence to write a novel (she’d written a nonfiction book about tipping around the world while still at Sam Goldwyn). She never went back.
Today, Star said, she tries to write every day, “to stay in the world of my book.”
But she did take some time off to help her daughter with her new baby. In the book, and in life, family comes first.
Excerpt: ‘Sisters One, Two, Three’
by Nancy Star
As usual, Ginger got the booby prize, front seat, and as usual, Glory drove like she was an actress sitting in the chopped-off half of a fake car on an old-time movie set, images of the world whizzing by as if on a screen. It was all, look over there, as the car swerved to the right, and look at that, as she overcorrected to the left. Anyone watching would surely assume they were a carload of drunken teenagers, and not a family with a mother who drove, forearms pressed against the wheel, as she inexplicably applied and then reapplied her lipstick every five minutes. Really, it was a mystery, how the same woman who could sit perfectly still, studying a single puzzle piece for minutes at a time, had to fidget constantly while driving. Suddenly a self-proclaimed expert on country roads, her hands fluttered like hummingbirds, to the radio looking for a better station, to her purse searching for a lozenge. Everything was urgent, her need for a tissue, for a nail file, for some Chiclets. And though she checked the rearview mirror frequently, communicating with glares or smiles to whichever child was or wasn’t displeasing her, she seemed oblivious that they were all clutching their seats with white-knuckled grips.
Making matters worse, the drought had turned the unpaved roads bone-dry, so their car traveled in a cloud of its own dust. “Like Pig-Pen,” Callie cheerfully observed, too young to understand the danger held in the equation of lack of visibility plus dreamy driver.