Readers of “The Better Sister,” Alafair Burke’s wonderfully twisty new thriller should get ready to be led down the garden path to a conclusion so morally ambiguous a professional ethicist might have to be called in. You end up feeling both horrified and vaguely complicit.
It takes a while for this tale of family messiness and eventual murder to really get going - but all the noneventful palaver about big-deal women’s magazine editor Chloe Taylor, her lawyer husband, Adam, their teenage son Ethan (actually Chloe’s stepson), and Chloe’s lost-soul of a sister Nicky (Ethan’s biological mother) is just cunning scene-setting for the numerous nasty surprises that soon come oozing into view.
Chloe, the novel’s narrator, means to present herself as “the better sister” of the title. She’s famous for her support of abused “everyday” women in the #ThemToo movement she initiated, she has 320,000 Twitter followers, and she’s “danced with Ellen.” But it’s clear early on that she’s not exactly, as her older sister calls her sarcastically, “Saint Chloe.” Critically, as it turns out, Chloe salary-shames Adam into joining a big “global powerhouse” law firm even though he loves being an assistant U.S. attorney. She’s snobby, too, snickering that Nicky carries a “purse the size of my wine fridge.”
While growing up in Cleveland, the children of a violent alcoholic and his submissive wife, Chloe was always the overachiever - it was a way out of that turbulent household - and Nicky the self-destructive loser. Nicky manages to emulate Chloe long enough to snare Adam Macintosh, a handsome up-and-comer who “could be out with models every night.” (In the age of Trump, this compliment doesn’t resonate quite the way it once might have, but never mind.)
After Ethan is born, Nicky falls apart - drugs, booze, heavy metal music - and Adam flees Cleveland with the child and lands in New York, where Chloe, rich and successful, is waiting to be helpful. It’s not long before Chloe is Ethan’s doting stepmom. That’s OK with broken, depressive Nicky until, 10 years later, Adam is stabbed to death in his and Chloe’s East Hampton vacation house, and Ethan is charged with the murder. Now it’s a rehabilitated Nicky who arrives on the scene to stand up for her biological son - and it’s here where the novel really starts to fly.
The two women who used to drive each other crazy gradually begin to appreciate each other. Chloe has been basically a good mom for Nicky’s biological son, and Nicky is clearheaded enough to see that and express her gratitude. She’s also bawdy and funny, and Chloe enjoys her sister for the first time. Nicky has a nice way of anticipating reader reactions to Chloe. The glamorous editor talks about serving “haricot vert” with her roast chicken, and what pops into your head is what Nicky blurts out to a dinner guest two lines later: “See, I remember back when Chloe called them green beans like everyone else in America.”
We don’t get to know Adam very well before he meets his maker, but we do learn from both Nicky and Chloe that he wasn’t Mr. Perfect, and he was up to something mysterious, probably work-related, possibly nefarious, in the days before his murder.
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Sixteen-year-old Ethan is painfully real and recognizable, and you don’t know until late in the novel what guilty secret he’s been harboring for months. The murder trial takes up the last third of the story, and it’s knowingly and suspensefully dramatized by Burke, herself a former prosecutor.
It should be noted that the worst people in “The Better Sister” are all men, including the internet trolls who regularly attack Chloe in language that is the province of near-psychopaths. It’s another one of those situations where you think, what hath Zuckerberg wrought? All the most compelling - and competent - people in the novel are women. That includes a Long Island police detective, Jennifer Guidry, whose male partner is a doofus. There’s also a mind-boggling final page that’s reminiscent of “Thelma and Louise” - except with a different final turn.