Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Teen/YA Review: The Secret Language of Sisters

In July, I listened to the teen/YA audiobook The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice. This was the first book I have read by Rice, and I enjoyed the moving story of the bond (and challenges) between two sisters when disaster strikes.

Fourteen-year old Tilly is impatiently waiting for her sixteen-year old sister, Roo (short for Ruth Ann), to pick her up at the library. She wants to be in time to stop by the cemetery where their father is buried on the way home, to see the owls fly out for the night, so she keeps texting her sister irritably. Roo’s last text was “Be there in 5 min,” but it’s been over an hour since then. Finally, Roo’s boyfriend, Newton, drives up to the library to pick her up, and Tilly finds out that Roo has been in a car accident and is in the hospital. Life for the two sisters has forever changed.

Although Roo seems OK initially, she has a seizure and ends up in a coma-like state. Doctors think she is completely non-responsive, but Roo can hear and understand what is going on around her. She can’t move or talk, though, so everyone just assumes she is in a coma and might have suffered brain damage. Frustrated, Roo doesn’t know how to let her family, friends, and doctors know that she is in there. Her only hope is that Tilly – her sister and best friend – can figure it out.

Tilly, for her part, is understandably upset over what has happened to her sister. To make matters worse, it gradually becomes clear that the accident occurred while Tilly was texting Roo, so she feels horribly guilty and at fault. All of these difficult feelings come on top of some typical sibling rivalry stuff: Tilly sees Roo as perfect – a straight-A student who is headed to Yale and is beautiful and in love with her boyfriend. Roo is also a talented photographer. Tilly sees herself as completely lacking – the ugly duckling sister who struggles with school and has no special talents. Her feelings of guilt over the accident bring all these inadequacies to the surface. Additional guilt comes as she and Newton become close, bonding over their shared experience of caring about Roo.

This is an intense and emotional story about the relationship between two sisters and how a disaster affects a family, but I was also fascinated by the details of Roo’s medical condition – called locked-in syndrome – and the new technologies available that might possibly help Roo (which also adds an air of hope to what could otherwise be a depressing story). A few years ago, I read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby (highly recommended – review at the link), a real-life story of a man with locked-in syndrome, so that added a sense of reality to this fictional story for me.

Chapters alternate between Roo and Tilly, so the reader hears the perspectives of both sisters. This is especially helpful in making Roo into a full character, instead of just a body in a bed, but it also serves to provide a different view of Tilly, who sees herself as a mess but is beloved by Roo. There is a lot going on in this book – grief, family drama, friendship, love – but the emphasis is on healing and recovery, not only for Roo but for Tilly, too. It’s a compelling and powerful story that kept me listening raptly.

Scholastic Audio

P.S. My 18-year old cousin also read this novel this summer and loved it, too! She and I both said we will never text and drive after reading this!

You can listen to an audio sample at the Amazon link below:


  1. Is there any recovery from Locked-in syndrome? How completely scary. Sounds like a good book.

    1. I think there has been a rare miracle or two, but it is usually permanent. Very scary. The memoir was very powerful, too.