It is said that when there are two siblings in a family, they will be opposites. The Taylor family was no exception. Chloe, the younger sister, was the honor roll student with a strong work ethic, while Nicky was restless and reckless. Nicky changed jobs and men, and never left Cleveland, while Chloe graduated from an Ivy League college, moved to New York City, and made a name for herself in publishing, winning awards and achieving fame with her series focused on the aftermath of the #MeToo movement.
Nicky seemed to settle down. She married Adam Macintosh, a prosecutor, and they had a beautiful little boy, Ethan. But happiness was short-lived.
Fifteen-plus years later, Chloe is married to Adam and the two of them are raising Ethan, with Nicky pretty much completely absent from their lives.
When Adam is murdered at the couple’s swanky East Hampton beach house, Chloe must reluctantly permit Nicky back into their lives. She comes to New York City to stay with Chloe and Ethan, and they achieve a tentative truce. But the police quickly deem Ethan a suspect, forcing the two sisters to unite in order to save their son. In order to do so, they must confront and finally deal with their family history and long-buried secrets.
Keep your enemies close and your sister closer.
Bestselling author Alafair Burke has crafted a contemporary, timely thriller about a dysfunctional family with a complicated history.
Eldest sister Nicky did not manage to remain settled for very long after Ethan was born. She quickly reverted to her old destructive patterns, and, according to Adam, that included irresponsible behavior was “so awful that Adam had no choice. He took Ethan and left her for good. He sought and was awarded full custody of Ethan. Adam went so far as to move to New York City to keep Ethan away from Nicky, ostensibly to ensure Ethan’s safety. His proximity to Chloe resulted in the two of them falling in love and marrying. According to Chloe, they established a strong friendship first. “For more than a year, we were just buddies. Then my birthday happened . . . we were definitely different than we were before.” The transition was, in some respects, natural since Chloe was already devoted to her nephew. Ethan began thinking of and referring to Chloe as “Mom.”
But over the course of the past couple of years, Ethan’s behavior has been troubling and his relationship with his father steadily deteriorating. They fought when Adam discovered that Ethan had engaged in behavior disturbingly reminiscent of Nicky’s. And as Chloe’s success and fame magnified, so did problems in her marriage to Adam. “Adam and I had become broken, for reasons only we understood.” At Chloe’s urging and thanks to her machinations, he left the job he loved and went from being a modestly compensated but happy prosecutor to a high-paid and miserable attorney with a large and powerful law firm. From Chloe’s perspective, Adam’s resentment drove a wedge between them. Chloe recalls that Adam “wanted to be one of the good guys again. But instead, he hated his job, and he blamed me for it.”
When Adam is murdered, Nicky is, of course, notified. Chloe knows that she has no legal claim to Ethan — while she may be his stepmother, she is petrified that, despite a clause in Adam’s will asserting his desire that Chloe continue raising him, Nicky will regain custody and take Ethan away from her. Thus, when Nicky arrives in New York, Chloe is motivated to at least develop an amiable relationship with her — for Ethan’s sake and to hopefully ensure that he will remain in her care.
The police focus their investigative efforts on Ethan and, worse, he is charged with Adam’s murder. Convinced, at least initially, of his innocence, the two women must work together in order to save the boy that both of them love.
Burke’s characters are fully developed and empathetic. Nicky was always troubled and, in Chloe’s estimation, blamed her problems on their parents. Their father was abusive, and their mother did not stand up for herself or her girls. Chloe is unaware of how much Nicky has grown and changed over the years since her divorce from Adam, and remains convinced that “as much as Nicky said she loved me and was grateful for the life I had given her son, I knew she had never forgiven me for marrying her husband.” Chloe’s judgmental attitude toward Nicky is not helpful when the two of them are trying to ensure that Ethan is not wrongly convicted of murder. Gradually, the sisters manage to believably forge a new relationship. This time it is founded upon a mutual goal. But in order for it to work, they must learn to trust each other. And in order to accomplish that, brutal truths about past events must be revealed.
As Ethan spends long months awaiting and then standing trial, Burke deftly portrays Chloe’s search for the truth about her husband’s death, and reveals the secrets she has been guarding about the true state of Ethan’s relationship with Adam, as well as her marriage. Burke injects clues about the identity of Adam’s killer and possible motivations for the murder, but expertly keeps readers guessing until the very end of the story. In the process, readers learn precisely what happened between Nicky and Adam, and the myriad ways in which the realities of Chloe’s life have been at odds with outward appearances.
Burke is a master storyteller and The Better Sister is yet another example of her creativity and ability to weave contemporary theme into a compelling mystery. She employs Chloe’s first-person narrative, along with a third-person account of the detectives’ investigation into Adam’s murder, and disturbing social media posts focused on Chloe, to full effect. Detail by disturbing detail, she skillfully unwinds a fourteen-year history through Chloe’s recollections of past events, all of which lead to a shocking conclusion.
Ultimately, The Better Sister is a sometimes blistering but always moving exploration of the unique relationship of sisters, the still unequal demands on and expectations of women and men as they strive to succeed in business, as well as the nuances of motherhood, and the lengths to which a mother will go to save her child.