Off the Shelf: Sisters and rivals by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Sibling rivalry alienates and separates those who might otherwise have caring relationships. These rivalries are made worse when parents treat their children very differently or show favoritism. An additional complication can occur when parents assign particular roles to each child – for example, the good child vs. the bad, the smart one vs the pretty one, etc. These determinations can have a detrimental effect on both parental and sibling relationships, as is seen in Lynda Cohen Loigman’s “The Wartime Sisters” (St. Martin’s Press), which takes place in the 1930s and ‘40s and tells the story of two sisters.
Ruth and Millie were never close, even when they were very young. The 3-year-old Ruth was looking forward to having a sister, but the two couldn’t have been more different: “Ruth liked to be early for school each day, but Millie dawdled in the mornings and made them both late. Ruth kept her half of the bedroom neat, while Millie’s side was littered with paper dolls and crayons.” Even worse, their mother and their teachers never seemed to notice Ruth’s good qualities, but instead forgave Millie her faults. No one appreciated the maturity Ruth showed, even at an early age. Rather they comforted Millie when she was upset and considered Ruth cold and uncaring when she kept her composure.
Even worse was the way the two girls were defined and treated by their parents, particularly their mother: Ruth was the smart one and expected to receive top grades, with her parents showing disappointment if her grade even slipped to an A-. Millie, on the other hand, was declared the beauty of the family at birth. Her poor grades were never considered an issue. Ruth chaffed at her mother’s treatment of her: “Though Ruth’s tiny transgressions were few and far between, they never seemed to escape her mother’s notice. Any misstep Ruth made was a short, shallow wrinkle on an otherwise smooth and pristine tablecloth. Millie’s slipups, by contrast, were like a full glass of burgundy tipped over onto clean white damask. To their mother’s discerning eye, Ruth’s wrinkles were conspicuous. But her sister’s stains were overlooked and hastily covered – anything so that the meal could continue to be served.”
The relationship between the two sisters deteriorates even further when Ruth begins dating. Almost everyone Ruth went out with preferred her sister, some even wanting to date Millie once they met her. Their mother had grand plans for Millie’s marriage: surely a rich man would want her hand and so she doesn’t prepare Millie for anything beyond the expectation of riches. The same path was never considered for Ruth so, when she dates Arthur and he prefers her company to Millie’s, Ruth is happy to marry him. She looks forward to their move to Massachusetts so she can start a new life away from her sister and parents. Millie remains in Brooklyn and marries after their parents die, but, when her husband, Lenny, is considered lost during World War II, Millie and her young son join Ruth, Arthur and their children at the armory in Massachusetts where Arthur is an officer and Ruth works in the accounting office.
Relations are tense in the household. Part of the problem is Ruth’s worry that everyone – including her husband – will prefer her sister. To complicate matters, Ruth has never felt at ease with the other officers’ wives. Millie finds work at the armory, which employed women to replace the men who became soldiers, and comes to appreciate the work and the friends she makes. The two women create separate lives even though they live in the same house. Millie wishes her sister would treat her differently, but doesn’t know how to connect with Ruth, to get past the reserve she shows. It doesn’t help that both sisters harbor secrets, which once revealed will result in an even greater strain on their relationship.
Loigman does an excellent job creating interesting, believable characters. What’s wonderful is how the author allows readers to see some events through the eyes of more than one character, including several minor ones who add depth to the novel. She also manages to convincingly portray the mild antisemitism and classism shown by some officers' wives. This is Loigman’s second novel and it is as well done and enjoyable as her first, “The Two-Family House.” (See The Reporter review at Those who liked her first novel will definitely want to read “The Wartime Sisters.” Those who haven’t experienced that work will find both worthwhile reading.