[Edit: September 20th 2019]
I’ve always believed (and still believe) that Paris is the most beautiful city in the world. However, as time goes by, I find myself more and more drawn to quieter, less populated places. It’s no surprise, then, that I am a little envious of what Kathleen found on Little Sister. Not so much the love of her life (I found mine twenty-five years ago) but the environment, the beauty, the quiet, and the community which prevents it all from being lonely. When I first read When the Stars Sang, in December 2018, my review was short and to the point: « Beautiful! Touching and heartwarming. I loved it. » Still true, but now that I’ve listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Ann Etter, I’m going to try and be a little more specific.
When she arrives on Little Sister, a tiny island off the coast of Maine, Kathleen doesn’t know much about life there, apart from what she remembers from her visits to her grand-mother as a child. She hasn’t set foot on the island in twenty-five years, since the death of her brother. Yet she’s planning on settling there, away from the unhappy place her life has been so far. When her brother died in a tragic accident, her parents more or less forgot all about her. She is so used to not being loved that she has been content so far in a relationship with a woman who mostly seems to want her when she’s ready to leave (she has her own problems to deal with, mainly an abusive father). Not everyone is happy to see Kathleen return to the island, though. The locals are wary of foreigners, or more precisely of rich foreigners whose only interest in the island would be to build huge mansions with no respect for their way of life. And what an interesting way of life it is! The islanders are descendants of First Ones (the people who first lived on the island) and survivors of an Irish ship which capsized near the coast a few generations ago. Their traditions reflect that mix too, taking from both cultures in a very organic way.
At first, some of the islanders are convinced Kathleen won’t last when she realises the ferry doesn’t come everyday, her cell phone won’t work, winds and storms will wreak havoc on electricity and internet access. One of those is the island sheriff, Molly, who holds Kathleen responsible, at least in part, for her brother’s problems, even though she knows how unfair that is. So now you know who’s going to fall in love with whom.
I loved watching Kathleen shed her unhappy and reserved self and grow into herself on the island. The process didn’t seem painful but it wasn’t easy either. « You’re serious? » is probably the question she asks the most in the course of the story, as she finds out about the ways of the island. Other reviewers have commented on the lack of chemistry between Molly and Kathleen, and I can’t disagree, since their relationship seems to come from a more cerebral place, from learning to know and respect and trust each other. Also, the environment, the island itself, its history, its customs play a huge role in their relationship, and the two of them are just part of it. The other inhabitants of the island are another. I can’t list all the secondary characters, but each and every one of those mentioned at some point in the book has depth and a real personality (even the dog, the cat and the gull).
As always with Caren J. Werlinger’s books, I am left with a lingering feeling of poetry and something surreal, almost dreamlike, but definitely heartwarming.