Never Said, by Carol Lynch Williams, is a book about a family in crisis. The crisis has been building over the course of a year when Annie, the beauty queen Annie “who is so lovely that adult men gasped”, begins to eat, and eat, and eat. To make sure no one misses her unspoken statement Annie chops off her hair and gets unneeded piercings. The family distress seems to increase in proportion to how much weight she gains, and she gains plenty. By the time the book begins—the last week of the crisis—the father sitting across the dinner table may as well be in Mongolia; the mother has lost her ability to understand or communicate and says the cruelest things without intent; and Sara, Annie’s fraternal twin, wonders how it is that Annie gets all the attention whether she is skinny or fat.
“We’ve been stuck in Annie’s fat since the first pound.”
This kind of book has the potential to be a loud book—a book full of screaming and vituperations. Yes, the mother who is beside herself at the loss of her beauty queen daughter, has many words to say:
“We’ve all given up our lives for you. Helped you win scholarships and trophies and . . .” Mom’s frustration bleeds down the hall. I peer out at her. See the annoyance in her face. Hear it in her voice. It’s dripping off her. Puddling on the floor.”
And moments later:
“You were so pretty,” Mom says. The words echo against the walls. Hit our home stronger than the storm. Colder. The comment isn’t directed at me, but it stings. I gasp for my sister.
But these scenes of raised voices and harsh words are the exception in the novel, not the rule. The book is actually a quiet book that takes place mainly through the eyes of Sarah, Annie’s plain, invisible twin sister. Sarah is pressed back into the shadowy corners of family and social life by her overbearing anxieties. We get the gist of Sarah at a pageant where Annie is being crowned.
“You could be a winner, too,” Dad said. Then he was cheering for Annie again. I was hot with emotion. Thrilled for Annie. But burning from the inside out. Had my dad really said that? We both knew I would never stand on that stage like that. Ever. No matter what Dad said, I couldn’t do what Annie did.
It is all Sarah can do to simply walk into a crowded room.
This brings up another point about the book. One of the young adult sibling rivalry books that led the way is Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson. Sibling rivalry books that follow have a hard time comparing well to that wonderful book. Never Said has all the makings of a sibling rivalry book, but Williams has turned the theme on its side and done something fresh.
Yes, this book has twin sisters—one beautiful and one plain. But from the beginning of the book the beautiful sister has become fat and is still eating. She is a fallen beauty queen at the age of sixteen. Many twin sisters who are plain and who have never known adoration might be tempted to take advantage of the situation, try to move in on the fallen beauty’s territory, or at least gloat a little. Not in this book. Sarah, who knows that the enemy in her own battle is not her sister, instead reaches out to her. While her mother is letting Annie know how disappointed she is Sarah peeks “back down the hall, wanting to walk to Annie. Stand beside. Hold her hand, if she’ll let me.”
While the book does well in hiding the intriguing mystery of Annie’s behavior until the end, what keeps me reading is the beautiful rendition of sisterhood between Annie and Sarah. Williams brilliantly let these sisters be twins while making their worlds so opposite. We see Annie strutting to school in her crown and high heels. We see Sarah throwing up in the school parking lot due to nerves. Yet, within this crisis we see these two opposites as blood sisters sharing/building a bond that many siblings only dream about.
She turns off the car. Looks at me. Smiles right in my face. She licks her finger and runs it over my left eyebrow, then right.
My throat closes up at her touch. “I don’t like spit on my face,” I say. Sort of. The words aren’t really there. But I don’t move away from my sister.
She cups my face in her hands.
“Okay,” I say.
Something inside me warms at her touch. My sister and me the same, right at this moment.
There are many other scenes like this one, written convincingly, touchingly, as these sisters travel toward the bogeyman that haunts the sisters and their family. It is this sisterhood that triumphs in the end.
Never Said reads like a large dust devil that crosses the field in the distance. It passes quietly even as you see debris picked up and whirled about. The debris is the questions raised in the book about beauty, bullying, sexuality and family communication. The dust devil plays out against the sisterhood of Annie and Sarah and the different kinds of courage that both of them must find. It is Sarah in the end who, through a kind of sacrifice based on love, slays the devil and brings again calm to the family.