The Titanic Sisters

Hope and Despair aboard the Titanic’s maiden voyage to America (Ireland, New York, Texas; 1911 – 1913): Despite a foreboding plot with fateful twists and turns, Irish-born Patricia Falvey’s fourth historical novel will make you feel good. Because at its heart is discovering the sweetness of love when you haven’t had much, or any.  

Through two fictional Irish sisters, Nora and Delia Sweeney, The Titanic Sisters humanizes the suffering that happened when a supposedly unsinkable, luxurious British ocean liner, the RMS Titanic, hit an iceberg and sank in the Nova Scotia Sea. We know one sister made it to America’s shores; the other listed as one of 1,500 passengers missing.       

Mysteries, secrets, and lies abound, starting with the hook that keeps you turning pages in this briskly moving novel. Which of the Sweeney sisters made it onto a lifeboat and lives to tell her story?   

Like Nora and Delia, Falvey immigrated to America from Northern Ireland. She was twenty, so is Nora; Delia is eighteen. They came from Kilcross, barely a village, in Donegal County. Falvey left home all alone. For all intents and purposes Nora and Delia did too as they were alienated from each other so they barely saw each other on the ship. Nora is her mother’s favorite, Delia the black sheep to no fault of her own. Born a twin, her brother died two minutes after childbirth and her mother blamed her for his death, treating her like a farmhand as her boy would have been. Nora is treated like a princess to the extent a poor farm family can eke out a living on “rocky soil” at the “tip of northwest Ireland.”

The physical appearance and personality of the two sisters matched their mother’s you-can-do-nothing-right emotional abuse of Delia (their submissive father quietly loved her) versus her you-can-do-nothing-wrong adoration of vivacious Nora. With her “hair as dark as turf” and “sure of her place in the world,” leaving “fair-haired and gray-eyed” Delia terribly lonely. She found solace in books that inspired dreams of travel and romance, and when perched on “a group of rocks, bleached white and smooth” gazing out on the pounding, wide-open Atlantic Ocean.      

The novel opens a year before the Titanic set sails when it was being built in Belfast. Life is never the same for the Sweeneys when a “rare” letter addressed to the mother arrives postmarked from America, making it already “important.” The letter informs her that her niece has died, and that her Irish husband, Aidan O’Hanlon, the writer, needs a governess for his only child: seven-year-old, Lily who has not said a word since her mother died. Soon we learn they live in Manhattan, not on the Lower East Side or Hell’s Kitchen where waves of Irish immigrants lived, but on the wealthy streets of the Upper East Side. Both sisters fantasize their mother will choose them, although there’s no way their mother will pick Delia. The letter includes money for a first-class cabin on the elegant ship, but soon Delia gets a break to go onboard too for a lowly job awaiting her. That angers Nora who won’t be able to dine and dance with the upper-class since the one ticket was exchanged for two in third-class berths, highlighting social class differences as well as Nora’s selfishness and total of regard for her sister. Nora and Delia are dreamers, Nora setting her sights on grandeur while Delia yearns to be free from the misery of her mother.

About 80 pages in, you’ll know which sister miraculously survived among the 700 passengers who did, and which sister is missing. Like so much else in the plotting, the telling reveals spoilers. So this review leaves out plenty, aims to give you some flavor and looks at the many themes and emotions depicted, seamlessly and splendidly blending fiction with history.

The author describes the Titanic as both a “Ship of Hope” and a “Ship of Despair.” Which reminded me of a recent article about a different type of catastrophe, environmental, one in which the journalist lost his brother and niece to a California mudslide asking, “Isn’t hope essential?” because “despair is paralyzing.” This is a novel of Hope and Despair. 

The range of those emotions runs the gamut, starting with the terror inside the sinking Titanic. There’s also a poor immigrant’s rootlessness, homesickness, sadness, and survivor’s guilt. Does she end up working someplace she feels comfortable, accepted, and useful? Do caring and loving souls enter into the picture? The novel touches and engages us as it feels authentic, making the fate of two imagined sisters real. The prose is sprinkled with a “wee” bit of Irish words, like “she’s a quare one for the craic.” “Tis” for you to look up!   

Aidan is the grieving widower in his thirties. Charismatic with his penetrating “dark, blue eyes,” a gentleman wonderfully devoted to his daughter Lily, who inherited his blue eyes but hers are more “wary.” She’s a heartbreaker. At their house near St. Patrick’s Church on Fifth Avenue, there’s also an endearing older housekeeper, a dreadful, jealous young maid, and an intimidating, vengeful father-in-law. Which means there’s pain and control amidst the elegance, parental love, and goodness. What’s also here is the budding sexual chemistry between an employer and his employee. Aidan is someone who doesn’t take kindly to people who don’t tell the truth. His morality sets in motion the ups and downs of a delightful romance. The reader knows he has a tender heart, but has trouble expressing it and is blinded by his righteousness.  

At times this old-fashioned yet highly relevant immigrant novel has a nostalgic feel, for the Old World charm of early New York City and the golden era of cross-country train travel when dining cars had “plush velvet” seats and sleeping cars “silken sheets.” The wonderment and romanticizing of the Old West is here too.  

In the backdrop of the early twentieth century is also the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that put horribly inadequate working conditions in the spotlight , the suffragette movement, and “wildcat” oil fever in Texas, where the author lives.      

A number of other colorful characters play pivotal roles, menacing and benevolent. They’re in the novel’s three settings: Manhattan, upstate New York, and Dallas. Texas is depicted as a “shotgun city” and a lovely place of blue-bonnet wildflowers with the space to breathe and determine one’s destiny.

“Risk takers and rule breakers, dreamers and sinners and independent souls with their own moral code” create a unique, satisfying ride.

Lorraine

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