Sisterhood must fascinate Kristin Hannah. She certainly has written several novels that dwell on the complex of feelings that drives sisters apart, that holds them separate and that sometimes brings them back together. The Nightingale, which I reviewed earlier (with raves) for “Bookin’ with Sunny,” situates two sisters in wartime. Now I’ve just read Magic Hour, totally unlike The Nightingale in setting and in tone, but with much of its creative energy centered on two sisters, long estranged, reunited by a most unusual circumstance. Once again, Hannah is writing about how the family dynamics of childhood echo into adulthood, and about how those patterns might be broken.
Julia is a successful, well-known child psychiatrist. When one of her patients commits a mass shooting, the press and all the bereaved parents blame Julia for not recognizing the danger in advance. With her career in shatters and at an emotional low point, Julia answers the phone and hears her sister’s voice. Although the two women haven’t spoken for years, Ellie, chief of police for an isolated rural community, needs her big-city sister’s help. Now.
A little girl has wandered out of the Olympic peninsula rain forest and into Ellie’s town. She’s like an animal, unable to communicate in any normal human way. While Ellie searches for the girl’s identity, she enlists Julia to help with the “wild child’s” damaged psyche. Together, the two sisters will work to bring the nameless soul back to normalcy. If they can.
So Magic Hour has multiple thematic story lines. One focuses on Julia, and the ways she regains her professional confidence while working with this damaged child. Another centers on the old family patterns that resurface when Julia and Ellie begin living together in their deceased parents’ house. The two women, now in their late thirties, are diametrically different. Ellie, the eldest, was prom queen material in her youth. Two subsequent marriages (to prom king material) have failed. Gawky Julia was the brainy sister. She always thought their father loved Ellie the best, while Ellie always thought their mother preferred Julie. As the reader sees clearly, their upbringing damaged both women’s abilities to find lasting relationships with men.
All this sisterhood byplay, however, diminishes as first Julia and then Ellie grow more and more attached to the “wild child”, the mute little girl they call Alice. Alice isn’t autistic after all, but someone has treated her hideously. Julia soon realizes that Alice is incredibly smart, but that no one ever taught her to talk or even how to behave in any civilized way. Instead, someone must have kept her tied up, somewhere in the wilderness of the Olympic peninsula. Working with Alice every day, doing research and keeping careful notes, brings Julia back as a professional. At the same time, she helps Alice get over her terror, ever so slowly, and begin to function in the real world.
Kristin Hannah has a real knack for creating intuitive characters who mature through the course of a novel. This one is particularly astute, both for its sisterhood connections and for its psychiatric perceptions of childhood development. Magic Hour is emotionally gripping, but it’s also smart, one of those novels that keep a reader up at night, one of those novels not easily forgotten. And, looking at the dust jacket of Magic Hour, I find another Hannah title. Between Sisters is on my ‘to read’ list, for sure. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Kristin Hannah: Firefly Lane; Night Road; Winter Garden; Home Front; Fly Away; Between Sisters; True Colors; Comfort & Joy; Home Again; Once in Every Life; When Lightning Strikes; On Mystic Lake & Summer Island; The Glass Case, The Nightingale