The novel begins with the death of Sadhana Singh. Beena, her older sister, is the narrator. As she clears his sister’s apartment and tries to uncover the circumstances behind Sadhana’s sudden death, she narrates the story of her family’s past and her present. The sisters, the daughters of an American yoga instructor and a Sikh baker, grow up above the family’s bagel shop in the Hasidic community in Montreal. Orphaned, they are left in the care of a traditional Sikh uncle. As teenagers, Beena becomes an unwed mother and Sadhana begins a struggle with anorexia.
The book examines the complicated bonds of sisterhood, what Beena calls “the deep trenches of our relationship.” They are very different, almost foils. Beena is introverted and self-conscious whereas Sadhana is an extrovert with numerous friends and causes. Beena also lacks Sadhana’s artistic flair. The title seems to refer to the two sisters, Sadhana being the bone and Beena the bread: Sadhana is hard-edged and brittle and physically she is all bone while Beena is softer and physically tends to be heavier. Sibling rivalry is certainly obvious: the girls are competitive. And things are not improved by the fact that they do not really communicate. Beena’s final observation that “the work of getting closer, of loving harder, is the work of a whole life” is a good summary of their relationship: they were not always as close as they should have been and didn’t always love each other as much as they should have.
I found it difficult to like either sister. Each tends to let anger affect her relationship with her sister, and both seem rather selfish. Only after Sadhana dies does Beena try to understand things from her sister’s point of view, and Sadhana’s actions before her death suggest she too was not giving due consideration to her sister’s decisions concerning her son.
Some of the characters lack sparkle. The uncle becomes just a male version of the cruel stepmother, and Evan, Beena’s love interest, is just too good to be true. Even Quinn, Beena’s son, is flat and uninteresting. This problem probably stems from the fact that we see them only from Beena’s viewpoint and are never given their thoughts and feelings.
The novel certainly has emotional depth in its showing the love and resentment and competitiveness of sisters, but I found the book unnecessarily lengthy. The plot seems stretched. For instance, the mystery around Sadhana’s death is supposed to add interest, but the suspense seems forced. It takes Libby so long to tell her story! And her revelation shows behaviour that is unbelievable for someone who supposedly loved Sadhana. There are other events that serve little purpose other than to emphasize the differences between the lives of the two women. The sub-story concerning the immigrants was too detailed, veering as it does into the political realm which has little importance in the relationship between the sisters. Events that should have been detailed, like the meeting between Quinn and Ravi, are only sketched - again, this weakness derives from the point of view chosen for narration.
I read this novel because it appears on the shortlist of Canada Reads 2016 which has the theme of starting over - books about transformation and second chances, stories of people choosing, or being forced, to make major changes in their lives. I shall be listening to the debates with interest because I find the theme of starting over is really not central in this book. Though both girls have to move on after deaths and birth in their family, there is little transformation. There is only the possibility of change in Beena’s life if she accepts “the work of a whole life” and tries harder to be more open in her relationships.