For background on the series see my review of the first book.
This is my favourite of the series so far, even though it arguably has the most plot holes/annoyances (I’ll get back to that in clearly marked spoilerish sections later on). There are several reasons I’m willing to forgive its flaws. I really love the setting of the story – the English countryside. It reminds me of my childhood, growing up in a small English village. It’s cosy and makes me feel at peace. Old stone houses with creaky floors and doors, fireplaces, fields, woods, nature… It’s pretty much my ideal life. And, Star is definitely the sister I identify most with. Apart from the being uncomfortable with speaking thing, and the fairytale upbringing thing, she’s basically me. She loves cooking, a quiet life, nature, gardens, books…
I also loved the past story. In particular the characters of Flora MacNichol and Beatrix Potter, and the friendship between the two. There seems to be a tie to a famous historical person or two in each of the sister’s backstories. Which I’m totally fine with – it’s all part of that “you have to accept the fantastical backdrop of the series” thing. I, as I suspect did many, grew up with Beatrix Potter books and I still remember the stories and drawings fondly. And both the character and her stories fit so well with the setting and themes of the overall arc here.
Star was the sister I was most curious about since the beginning. In both the first two books much is made of the strong bond between Star and CeCe and how CeCe basically speaks for Star and makes all of their decisions. They shared a room growing up and they’ve lived and travelled together ever since. From the outside it seems like a very strange dynamic, and one wonders why Star – an adult in her mid-twenties at this point – never speaks, never makes any decisions and never goes anywhere without her sister. Is it just something they’ve gotten used to? Is it too hard to break away from the clearly dominant CeCe? Are they happy like this? The first two books do hint at the older sisters being worried about Star and it seems that she may be struggling with playing second fiddle to CeCe.
Mild spoilers for the now story (skip down):
I feel like this is actually never adequately explained in The Shadow Sister. The modern story deals in large part with Star finding her independence and tearing herself lose form this co-dependent relationship. But why was it like that in the first place, when she seems to be unhappy with it? Clearly both sisters needed each other for different reasons at some point, but that doesn’t really explain or justify their bizarre dynamic. It seems that at the time Star’s story takes place, CeCe needs Star much more than Star needs CeCe. Star does not deal with this well. She’s not good at confrontation and speaking up – or indeed speaking at all. I feel that because of this she tends towards being quite rude and inconsiderate towards CeCe. If she doesn’t tell her that something is wrong, how is CeCe supposed to know?
I also don’t really understand what Star’s problem is. I mean, I’m a quiet, careful person too – like I said, in most respects Star is very similar to me. But her issues with having a normal conversation with basically anybody seem quite extreme. I feel as if the character of Shanthi was brought in just to illustrate Star’s difficulties with communication and making friends, but again it doesn’t really shed any light on what’s behind her issues. Star seems to have no diagnosis or trauma to explain her odd behaviour. I kept waiting for an explanation that never really came. I thought that was what her big reveal to Mouse towards the end of the book was going to be about, but no.
Star’s clues to her past lead her to a second hand/rare bookshop in London. Conveniently Star and CeCe are already living in London, so she’s only a bus ride away. It works well with Star’s personality that her destination is geographically close by, as I feel like it would have been too big of a hurdle for her to have to travel abroad by herself to discover her past.
After much hesitation she picks up the nerve to not only enter the store but also talk to the proprietor of said store – Orlando. Orlando is my favourite present day character. He is the perfect rare bookshop owner. His books are his life. He’s eccentric and distracted, but a very kind and affable sort of fellow. He’s constantly quizzing Star on literature and referencing obscure literary trivia. He loves to eat well and have a glass of wine with lunch, and like Star he has a sweet tooth. I liked him immediately.
Orlando gradually manages to draw Star out of her shell a little, and he offers her a job in his store. Of course it doesn’t pay very well but it is pretty much a dream job for Star who is as passionate about books and literature as Orlando is. And I’m kind of jealous. I often think I’d enjoy a low-key kind of job like this in a cosy café or bookshop. Something Star says later on when she’s talking about what to do with her life really resonates with me:
I thought I wanted to write, but it’s harder than it looks and I’m not sure I’m any good. […] I actually like the simple stuff a lot: keeping house, cooking, gardening . . .[…] I’m not very ambitious. Is that wrong?
That’s pretty much me in a nutshell. If I could settle down somewhere in the countryside (preferably on the coast) and spend much of my time reading, writing, cooking, taking walks and tending to house, home and animals, I think I would be perfectly happy. And that’s why I loved this book so much. It’s just so cosy!
Of course the past story is not that cosy, though the setting is. It centres around Flora MacNichol, one of Orlando’s ancestors to whom Star is also possibly related. Flora grows up in the Lake District in the late 19th century. She loves animals and nature more than anything, and keeps a menagerie of various animals she has rescued from somewhere or other, Panther the cat being a central character in her life (which of course appeals to the cat lover in me). She’s an avid sketcher, diarist and amateur botanist, often up at dawn with her sketchpad under her arm.
Sadly this countryside idyll can not last, and financial circumstances force Flora to move to London, ostensibly to work as a governess for an acquaintance of her mother. I’ll not say more about Flora’s time in London in order to avoid spoilers, but it’s an interesting and mysterious story with plenty of twists and turns, involving yet another famous historical character. And of course, there’s a tragic love story (or indeed several).
One thing really bothered me about the past narrative though. Spoilers ahead (skip down):
When Flora and Archie fall in love, I feel like they could have ended up happily ever after with relative ease. Instead Archie says he has to take care of something, disappears, and the next Flora hears – more or less – is that he’s apparently courting her sister. So, OK, Archie had made arrangements with Flora and Aurelia’s dad that he would marry Aurelia, and the MacNichol family estate would be sold to help with the upkeep of High Weald, Archie’s home. But I mean this literally happened days before he fell in love with Flora, and Aurelia knew nothing of it yet. Sure it would be a little awkward, but why could he not have just told the man “listen, I’m actually in love with your other daughter, so why don’t we make the same arrangements but with Flora instead?” – slightly more eloquently phrased of course, but you get my drift. Aurelia still had plenty of time to find an appropriate suitor in London and would have been none the wiser. So, that’s my beef. They go through most of their adult lives living with pain and betrayal over something that could have been quite easily fixed if they’d acted fast and discretely. Rant over.
That being said, I did enjoy following Flora (and Panther of course) through life, and enjoyed much of the post-London part in particular.
I think that both narratives come to a satisfactory conclusion. Though the ending of the Star narrative is maybe a little rushed. In my opinion the romance seems slightly forced. I couldn’t really get a proper handle on her romantic counterpart and she didn’t really seem to be all that interested. Maybe that’s just her thing with having problems talking to people and making her own decisions. Though I find it a bit of a stretch that after the experiences she’s had through the novel and how she seems to have grown stronger and more independent it takes her that long to decide she wants to be with someone she’s already had plenty of opportunity to get to know.
Though again it’s not enough to detract from my overall cosy glow that I got when I read this, it was really easy to immerse myself in and I enjoyed it immensely. Would recommend. Though you may not be as enthused if the setting and main character are less appealing to you than they are to me.