I highly anticipated reading The Cherry Robbers (publishing today, May 17, 2022) by Sarai Walker, author of Dietland, and I was not disappointed. Walker’s second book is different in tone and subject matter, but it is just as transgressive as Dietland was.
There are two storylines: The first is set in the very recent past in New Mexico, from the perspective of one Sylvia Wren, a famous painter reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe, who we find out has a secret, which a reporter has also found and has written to Wren to confront her about it, threatening exposure. So Sylvia decides to tell the story of the Chapel sisters beginning in 1950: six sisters, the heiress daughters to a famous gunmaker fortune, who live in a mansion in Connecticut. All of the sisters are named after flowers, from Aster to Zelie (Hazel) which their mother Belinda has painted in their rooms.
At the beginning of the historical part of the story, the oldest sister, Aster, has met a suitable man and is engaged. Iris, the 5th sister, is about 1o or 12. The girls’ mother takes to her room with “sickness” often, but the entire family is expected to appear at the dining room table every night for a civilized dinner. As we are drawn in to the preparations for Aster’s wedding, we find that Belinda often has nightmares and screams through the night. Belinda tells Iris that if Aster gets married, “something terrible” will happen. So Iris takes it upon herself to try to stop the wedding, as she cannot bear to be separated from any of her sisters, as they are each others’ only playmates and primary friends.
Nevertheless, despite Iris’s best efforts, the wedding happens, and Aster dies on her wedding night, after having been brought back to her family home by her groom, who doesn’t know what to do when Aster goes “mad”–both screaming and catatonic–after the consummation of their union.
One by one, it is inevitable-=each of the four older sisters die on their wedding night, and Belinda is wracked with grief and often sedated. She is eventually sent to an asylum, “for her own protection,” and Iris must distance herself from her mother or she will end up in the same place. One quote “Was Belinda actually sick? I didn’t think so; it was more that she couldn’t be tamed–that’s what they didn’t like, and since they couldn’t tame her, they sedated her.”
Iris is lucky in that she is not tempted by men, but the men in her life–her father, her doctor–still don’t want to allow her the independence she knows that she needs to survive. Iris attends art school in Connecticut. After Zelie is lost despite Iris’ best attempts to protect and shelter her, and Iris visits her mother one last time, she knows that if she is to survive, she needs to escape the Chapel family curse forever.
Wow! I was blown away by how creepy and transgressive it was! I’m sure it will be fodder for many classes in feminist literature. I thought the relationships between the sisters were brilliantly written, and couldn’t put it down because of the slow horror of Iris not being able to save any of her sisters. It was complete justification for her escape.
With regard to fatness, I would consider it fat positive, with a warning of some anti-fat bias that a character had to endure. A couple of the sisters were described as fat, with a “ripe roundness, which today would likely be described as fat in the negative way fat has come to be spoken about, but in those days, things were different.” One sister’s future husband takes note of her “extra flesh” and warns her not to become bigger. Another sister was described as a “luscious flower.” However, unlike Walker’s first novel, Dietland, fatness was not a primary theme of this book. It was still brilliant.
If you like creepy, gothic, feminist historical fiction, don’t miss it!
Thanks to NetGalley for an e-Galley of the book in exchange for an honest review.