The Canterbury Sisters
About This Book
Che Milan’s life is falling apart. Not only has her longtime lover abruptly dumped her, but her eccentric, demanding mother has recently died. When an urn of ashes arrives, along with a note reminding Che of a half-forgotten promise to take her mother to Canterbury, Che finds herself reluctantly undertaking a pilgrimage.
Within days she joins a group of women who are walking the sixty miles from London to the shrine of Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, reputed to be the site of miracles. In the best Chaucer tradition, the women swap stories as they walk, each vying to see who can best describe true love. Che, who is a perfectionist and workaholic, loses her cell phone at the first stop and is forced to slow down and really notice the world around her, perhaps for the first time in years.
Through her adventures along the trail, Che finds herself opening up to new possibilities in life and discovers that the miracles of Canterbury can take surprising forms.
I have been to Canterbury Cathedral and studied Chaucer, so a modern retelling of The Canterbury Tales was a highly intriguing premise to me—as was this gorgeous cover! I’ve never read this author before, but I was eager to dive in, hoping for strong writing and possibly a new favorite author. I also expected an emotional journal by a heroine I could really connect with and relate to, who goes through a transformational journal a là Cheryl Strayed in Wild, Evelyn Couch in Fried Green Tomatoes, or even Drew Baylor in Elizabethtown. And while the book more than fulfilled my expectations for a women’s fiction story, it did leave a bit to be desired in terms of character development.
From the very first page, Wright’s voice shouted out clear and strong, oozing with equal parts self-awareness and sarcasm. Her writing is the single greatest thing about this book. It was electric. I literally said, “Wow, I love this!” out loud when I reached the end of page one. Very few writers’ voices have ever so pleasantly startled me.
Fans of English literature and history will feel an immediate connection with this retelling of Chaucer’s most famous work, as I did. Wright stays reasonably close to the bone as her group of characters set out from London to walk the historic pilgrim trail to Canterbury, swapping stories about love and letting their guide determine the winner, who will be treated to dinner by the group at their final destination (all elements of Chaucer’s original plot). Wright’s descriptions of the scenery, of each place they visit along the way, were simply stunning. I really felt like I was there. I particularly liked that the descriptions were often unconventional; instead of being impressed with the white cliffs of Dover, for example, Che points out the sadness and melancholy of her surroundings. Such counter-intuitive moments really heightened the sense of realism for me.
While first-person isn’t my favorite point-of-view to read, it does work remarkably well in this genre, and particularly well in this story. Che leapt to life from the very first sentence and was a resounding megaphone who really carried the story forward . . . but not necessarily as a heroine. In many respects, she felt more like the narrator of the story, like the chorus in a Shakespearean play. While she’s the catalyst who launches the story, I found myself infinitely more intrigued by the women she was traveling with, and through her connected more with them than I did with her directly. So much so that, at the end, I almost wanted her to get out of the way, go back to America, and let me take her place with the other travelers.
I also felt that, as the central character, Che didn’t achieve the character growth and development I was led to expect from the story’s description. She had some moments of introspection, but in the final chapter she felt like exactly the same character she’d been in the first chapter. Perhaps that was because she never tells her “tale”—the story about love that each woman making the pilgrimage with her agrees to make. A somewhat random event skews her journey near the end and sets her on a somewhat different path, and I honestly felt a bit cheated. After all her companions shared their tales (some of which were heartbreaking, others laugh-out-loud funny), I felt the book had been building toward some kind of great life-lesson Che was going to realize and then share in her own story—that definitive moment of change that would mark her personal turning point. But it never came . . . or it was so deeply buried that I completely missed it. Either way, the ending felt a bit flat and anticlimactic to me.
Conservative readers should note that this is a general market novel, and as such is not for the faint of heart. Wright’s prose and dialogue are laced with profanity which, while not unexpected for a secular book, nevertheless became a distraction for me in its excess. Some of the women’s stories and conversations include sex, pornography, domestic violence, and drug abuse, and while some (like a woman discovering her husband had made a sex tape with his former spouse, and kept it) are clearly intended to be funny, I sure didn’t find them so, and admittedly reached a point where I began to skim.
Combined with the elements of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other mature content, I definitely would not recommend this book to conservative or young readers. For that matter, I would not recommend this book to the occasional women’s fiction dabbler, but only to the die-hard fan of this genre who knows what kinds of typical themes and story elements to expect. While Wright’s voice is powerful and worth reading, the objectionable content and lack of character development for the heroine left an overall sour taste in my mouth when I turned the last page. I’m glad I read this story, but I won’t be reading it again.
Available May 19, 2015 from Gallery Books