I received a free copy of this book (via NetGalley) thanks to Rachel Gilbey at Rachel’s Random Resources. This review is one of many in a blog tour reviewing The Lost Sister. The decision to review this book and the opinions of it below are entirely my own.
This review is spoiler-free!
Three sisters. Three ships. One heartbreaking story. 1911. As Emma packs her trunk to join the ocean liner Olympic as a stewardess, she dreams of earning enough to provide a better life for both her sisters. With their photograph tucked away in her luggage, she promises to be back soon – hoping that sickly Lily will keep healthy, and wild Ruby will behave. But neither life at sea nor on land is predictable, and soon the three sisters’ lives are all changed irrevocably… Now. When Harriet finds her late grandmother’s travelling trunk in the attic, she’s shocked to discover a photo of three sisters inside – her grandmother only ever mentioned one sister, who died tragically young. Who is the other sister, and what happened to her? Harriet’s questions lead her to the story of three sister ships, Olympic, Titanic and Britannic, and a shattering revelation about three sisters torn apart…
This novel combines two genres I love: historical fiction and mystery, and so I had very high hopes for The Lost Sister. Even better, this book features a dual timeline, a storytelling technique I’m rather fond of, and is very much a woman-led piece of work. But perhaps my expectations were a little too high, because I was left feeling grossly underwhelmed and largely disappointed. These feelings came before I reached the final pages of the book – in fact, they came rather early on as it soon became clear that this was not going to be the kind of novel I could lose myself in, the kind of novel I would genuinely enjoy.
The Lost Sister flits between the life of 21-year-old Emma Higgins, living through the 1910s, and her descendant, 70-year-old Harriet in 2019. The dual timeline exploring Emma’s past, and that of her two younger sisters Ruby and Lily, and Harriet’s present is sparked by Harriet’s decision to clear out her attic, with the help of her adult daughter Sally. During this clear out is where she comes across some of her late grandmother’s belongings, including those from her time at sea. Stylistically, author Kathleen McGurl makes some wise choices that fuel the mystery element rather well, and this maintained throughout the novel’s course. Similarly, McGurl constructs parallels between the cast of characters and their sibling relationships. Much in the way that Emma struggled to maintain a positive relationship with her defiant younger sister Ruby, Harriet has failed to remain close to her older brother Matthew, and Sally’s own with her younger sister Davina, who seems to be a modern-day Ruby, is practically non-existent yet extremely tense.
I think The Lost Sister has a strong foundation, with the dual timeline, family parallels, significant subplots, and the occasional plot twist, but the writing style is where it all seems to fall apart for me. McGurl has a way of writing that leads her to overstate the obvious, giving off an almost robotic and listless feel. It was far from compelling, which downplays how strong the plot devices and storyline truly are. In this sense, it began to feel as though I was powering through the writing for the sake of a good plot. In the end, I found the conclusion rather unsatisfying, as though there was something left unsaid or undiscovered. Had this book been written in a different way, with a different tone and a stronger commitment to descriptive writing, it could have been a real gem to me.
The Lost Sister seems like the kind of novel that is great in theory, but in practice it falls very short. With a seemingly underdeveloped writing style, which then takes away from the strength of its plot, constituting a read I honestly found disappointing and lacklustre, The Lost Sister only earns 2 out of 5 stars.
Some of Kathleen McGurl’s other works include The Forgotten Secret, The Secret of the Château, and The Stationmaster’s Daughter.