The Other Sister


240 Pages
October 01, 2008

Despite her advanced age and failing health, nonagenarian Julia Brannon is a stubbornly independent woman. She refuses her daughter’s offer to move in with them and insists on living in a retirement home. Unable to argue, her daughter and grand-daughter, who for their individual reasons want to hold on to Julia’s memories, gift her with a laptop on which she can record in writing the events of her past.

As Julia looks back at her past, she records memories of her identical twin sister Jane and their disparate personalities, yet intertwined lives. From learning about sex and falling in love, to coping with the tragedies of their individual lives, she notes down the stories of her and “Sissa” — the nickname both sisters used for each other.

In the present, Julia meets Lena Kohn at the retirement home. Also a twin, who lost her sister at Auschwitz, Lena’s memory is failing, and driving her back into the terrifying events from her past. Despite Julia’s efforts to draw her back into the present, Lena’s regressions are harder to break. Interactions with other residents of the facility force a cantankerous and argumentative Julia to face up to her own privileged past and people’s prejudices — particularly anti-Semitic ones — propelling her to develop more empathy.

Julia also meets Daniel for second chance at friendship and love. As their mutual respect grows, so does his curiosity about her secretive past. Soon, he uncovers a family secret that pulls Julia out of the web of deception she has spun around herself and her family in order to protect those she loves.

Shuttling between past and present over the span of almost a century, The Other Sister weaves personal, local and global histories into an intricate narrative tapestry to form the heart of this story. Although the cycle of history may eternally recur, its effect on Julia, singular and personal, is life-altering.

Lola Lemire Tostevin was born into a French-speaking family in Timmins, Ontario. She has published seven collections of poetry, one collection of literary essays and two novels in the English language. Her work has been translated into French and Italian. Tostevin taught creative writing at York University in the 1980s and ’90s and was writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario in 2004-05. She lives in Toronto with her family.

4 reviews for The Other Sister

  1. InannaWebmaster

    “Lola Lemire Tostevin’s novel, The Other Sister, inspires a quiet and close reading, an experience that teeters on the edge of loss’s poignancy. Julia’s story speaks in two frames, one fashioned by the presence of old age and one by the complicated tissue of past memories. Julia’s cautionary line—“any rendering of the past is always provisional”—rings in the reader’s ears as a difficult family secret is revealed, slowly and carefully, and with a kind and forgiving poetic justice. Reaching into both personal histories and grave historical events, this writing is beautiful, compelling, almost urgent, and is sure to draw readers into its caressing world at any stage of their lives.”
    —Marlene Kadar, Editor, Reading Life Writing, and Essays on Life Writing

    “A compelling testimony to the terrifying and profound interconnectedness of our human stories, inviting us to make an imaginative leap of empathy across time lines and generations. In Julia, we get the most unconventional portrait of the old woman since Margaret Laurence’s Hagar Shipley.”
    —Eva C. Karpinski, School of Women’s Studies, York University

  2. InannaWebmaster

    Highlights from the National Post Book Review of The Other Sister,
    by Lola Lemire Tostevin

    Saturday, November 22, 2008
    Reviewed by Eva Tihanyi

    “Lola Lemire Tostevin’s third novel is an interesting one, mainly because at the outset it appears to be a story about old age when, in fact, it is quite a lot more. Julia Brannon is 97 when she leaves her house and moves into a retirement home. As a moving-in gift, her daughter, Rachel, and her granddaughter, Thea, give her a laptop and ask her to record her memories.

    Julia has all her life been intelligent, headstrong and independent, as is evident in her journal entries, which Tostevin effectively incorporates into her main narrative. Julia and her twin sister, Jane, grew up in a privileged Toronto environment. Their father’s wealth enabled them to make choices that might otherwise not have been available to them. When the eligible bachelor Wilson Brannon comes calling, he gets to know both girls but falls in love with Julia, whose feistiness and joie de vivre appeal to him. Jane is far more conventional…. The last thing Julia wants is marriage, so she refuses Wilson’s proposal and suggests that he marry Jane instead.

    Now, in old age, Julia reflects upon her life and her choices. Her brain is still sharp, as is her tongue, and she still doesn’t suffer fools.… She also continues to be open to new relationships, two of which become especially important to her. One is with Daniel Browne, a retired mathematics professor. Daniel feels he has found a kindred spirit in Julia, who has refused to let her age disengage her from life. The other is with Lena Kohn, a Holocaust survivor who lost her twin sister in Auschwitz. Lena suffers horrific flashbacks to her childhood, and the more Julia gets to know her, the more she realizes how much she doesn’t know about Auschwitz. She is also forced to confront her own prejudices, prejudices that are all the more insidious because she hasn’t realized they existed.

    Tostevin, a Toronto writer, packs a lot into this novel…. The generational differences evident among Julia, Rachel and Thea are thought-provoking in themselves; when put into a larger historical context they become even more so…. ”

    Copyright © 2007 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.

  3. InannaWebmaster

    Highlights from the Jewish Tribune book review

    Tuesday, 04 November 2008
    Reviewed by Sylvia Brooke

    “TORONTO – In The Other Sister, the latest novel by Canadian Writer Lola Lemire Tostevin, we are forced to ask the question, “what if it were me?” Central character Julia Brannon, a woman in her 90s, and a twin, has lived a rich life as a successful academic and mother. However, she harbours a deep secret that only comes to light during her final days at a retirement home.

    There she befriends Lena Kohn, a Jewish survivor and also a twin. As a twin, she was a victim of Dr. Mengele’s medical experiments and lost her twin sister at Auschwitz. In old age and great anguish, she is reliving the vivid memories from the war.…

    Through the encounters in the novel between Julia and Lena, Julia is compelled to look at her own life, where she was spared the tortures that Lena went through and lived a life of ignorance during the war. She was unaware of what was unfolding in Europe, as were most Canadians at the time. Julia is made to realize the empathy within herself and how very much alike we all are. Though the two women have vastly different personal histories, each being an identical twin bonds them.…

    The Other Sister is skillfully and beautifully written. It is a tale that spans many decades and touches many lives, while showing how closely we can touch each other.”

  4. InannaWebmaster


    The Other Sister
    Reviewed by Ronald Charles Epstein

    “New experiences will influence everyone’s lives, but they can redefine the future for the fortunate. This is the case with the Toronto academic and author Lola Lemire Tostevin. Exposure to the English language in a Timmins, Ontario convent school began to turn the working-class Franco-Ontarian into a cosmopolitan writer. Feminism defined her early poetry and still influences her literary perspective. This means that her sympathetic imagination is refined by knowledge and conviction, a formula for substantial fiction.

    The Other Sister is a contemporary tale about Julia Brannon, an aged WASP ex-philosophy professor, who moves into Everholme, a Toronto senior citizens’ residence. There, she meets Lena Kohn, a Jewish Hungarian who, like her, is a surviving twin sister. Ironically, this leads the protagonist to discover the distance between them; she lost “Sissa” in a personal tragedy, but Kohn’s sister lost her life due to Dr. Mengele’s infamous experiments on twins.

    Two other characters link Julia and Lena, in their own special ways. Hungarian concert pianist Gizi Magris, a burn victim, is temporarily lodged at Everholme. Julia volunteers to help her until she discovers that the visitor hates Gypsies and Jews, including Lena, from “one of those camps, no doubt” (130). The senior’s outrage at that attitude binds her closer to the survivor. The discovery that her other friend, retired mathematics professor Daniel Browne, is also Jewish leads her to examine her life in her casually anti-Semitic old milieu. This psychological journey furthers her understanding of Jewish-Gentile relations.

    Tostevin reminds readers that although her novel “reflects elements of historical accuracy, resemblances to actual persons living or dead are coincidental” (231). This means that she seamlessly intertwines fact and fiction. Lena and her twin Leni are equally imaginary, but their Auschwitz tormentor, Dr. Josef Mengele, was all too real. Those who are not students of Canadian history may view Frederick Charles Blair as merely Julia’s father, Harlan Crane’s most prestigious legal client. The historically aware know Blair as the official who formulated Canada’s anti-Jewish immigration policy in the late 1930s.…

    Historical and contemporary settings are developed with telling details and socially aware portraiture.…
    The plot is divided into multiple past tracks and a present one. The latter unfolds as the former progresses, but the past influences the present. As Julia understands Lena’s tragedy, she eventually senses its emotional implications. The plot deals with the effects of World War I and the Holocaust, through the perspective of a sheltered Toronto seniors’ residence. This view diffuses the action in a manner that discourages impatient readers. Patient ones are rewarded with shock and transformation.”

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