‘The Bookstore Sisters’ a short story by Alice Hoffman

‘The Bookstore Sisters’ is a modern fairytale. It sews a quilt of grief and regret and family and love with a thread made of books, baking, hope and a little bit of magic.

For me, the magic is in the words, which enchant and soothe even while speaking of painful things. Listen to the lullaby rhythm of this opening paragraph, describing the ability of Isabel, the sister who left home to be in Manhattan, to forget.

“She was good at forgetting; she had practiced for years, and it was now a skill at which she excelled. When she tried, she was able to forget not only Brinkley’s Island, which held her worst childhood memories, but the entire state of Maine, where she had spent her first eighteen years. She could forget she was divorced, after five unhappy years; she could forget she was thirty-two and ate most of her meals alone in her apartment on Eighteenth Street, where the stove was temperamental and often refused to light. She could even forget that she had once been considered the girl most likely to become somebody, when she’d turned out to be nobody in particular. When Isabel really tried, she could block out everything around her. She could even forget it was June, which had once been her favorite time of year, before everything went wrong.”

Hoffman, Alice. The Bookstore Sisters: A Short Story (p. 3). Amazon Original Stories. Kindle Edition.

The words are simple and soothing and invite you to settle down and listen to an authorial voice that has a story to tell. At the same time, they invite you to smile as you look beneath the surface and acknowledge that even Isabel knows that while she may have succeeded in not allowing herself to remember, that is very different from managing to forget. It reminds us, without missing a single calming this-is-a-simple-story-simply-told step that our past shapes us even when we choose not to remember it.

This is a quietly hopeful story and yet it is one that, at points brought me close to tears, not because of what the story is but because of the gap between my reality and this story.

The world of the Bookstore Sisters of Brinkley’s Island is not the world as I know it, where grief always waits in ambush, where broken family bonds are almost impossible to mend and where the past can never be revisited or rewritten. This is a version of the world as I would like it to be, where a person has a place if they can just find it and settle in it, where forgiveness mends the past and makes the future possible and where remembering who and what you love will make you happy.

This story comes equipped with all the things that gladden the heart; labradors, a local bookshop filled with well-loved books, home-baked goods with names like ‘You’ll Feel Better in the Morning Cupcakes’, nice people who wish you well and people who, if you let them, will love you for who you are. It sharpens the flavour of these things by mixing them with bereavement, disappointment, misunderstanding, hurt and opportunities missed.

By the end of the story, I felt better, about myself and the world, even though I knew that what I’d read wasn’t realistic, that it was too full of niceness and luck for that. I’d known from the opening paragraph that the dance this short story was offering me had a fairytale beat but who doesn’t want to take part in a dance where the steps free you from the day-to-day and let you experience hope and love?

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