A study of sisters

Emily Cavanagh’s ‘This Bright Beauty’ explores motherhood, sisterhood, and mental illness.

Island author Emily Cavanagh will discuss her newest novel, "This Bright Beauty," at the West Tisbury library. — Courtesy Olivia Larsen

Emily Cavanagh, an insightful, evocative author, shared her newest book, “This Bright Beauty” with a rapt audience at the West Tisbury library on a Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks ago. Cavanagh, a resident of Oak Bluffs and an English teacher at the Charter School, spoke of the book as an exploration about motherhood, being a twin, and mental illness. The story is narrated in alternating chapters from the dual perspectives of the identical twins. The very first paragraph masterfully conveys the immediacy of the twins’ emotional bond through sister Lottie’s earliest memory: “I remember this: sleeping in the crib with Franci, our faces nearly touching, inhaling the milky scent of each other’s breath … Her thumb tightly between my lips, and I was vaguely aware of the warm, wet feeling of my own thumb in Franci’s mouth … We slept, we breathed, our arms woven to share thumbs.”

Lottie perceives herself as the dominant one when she describes their birth: “I’m sure I started it, always eager, needing to be the first, not even born and already sick of sharing … Enough. I began the long descent into the world, like an animal burrowing through a tunnel, trying to find the hole on the other end … Someone should have told me there was no hurry. Things would be no different outside that safe warm space. We’d share tight spaces all our lives.” The ramifications of their intimate relationship run throughout “This Bright Light.”

The balance has shifted as the present-day narrative begins with Franci, a stay-at-home mom, and Lottie, a professor with bipolar disorder. The sisters haven’t spoken in about a year, the reason for which we find out later, when Franci gets a call that Lottie has been in a serious accident. She leaves her own family to take care of Lottie, only to discover that unbeknownst to her, Lottie has had a baby. Over the course of her visit, Franci believes she needs to determine if Lottie, with her current physical limitations due to the accident and her continual mental instability, is well enough to be a single mother. Franci, who has become the strong twin, historically taking care of Lottie during her breakdowns, feels entitled to make decisions for Lottie and her infant daughter. Although clearly the more rational one, Cavanagh’s poignant description of Lottie’s mind, both when she is on and off the medication, gives us slight pause to wonder if her illness should categorically deny her a mother’s right to make decisions for herself.

But how can we not side with Franci when Cavanagh gives us such visceral descriptions of what it’s like to be in Lottie’s mind when she is, as inevitably happens, off her medication — during her “bright whites,” the highs of the mania, and particularly her “blacks,” the lows of incapacitating, self-harming depression:

“I could feel the dark hazy fog as it settled in, tucking itself into the crevices of my body, plugging my ears, my mouth, my nose, making it impossible to breathe naturally. The fog was dense and oppressive, and as always, there was nothing to do but submit. The only option was to try to steel myself for the descent. But no matter how many times it happens, no matter how much I try to gather my strength and optimism and goodwill around me like a protective cloak, there is no preparation for the fall.”

The narrative unfolds in the past and present, and secrets are revealed, keeping us ever engaged in the story and Cavanagh’s evocative use of imagery.

Asked where the idea for the story came from, Cavanagh replied, “The novel was inspired by a newspaper article I read years ago about twin sisters, one of whom was responsible for the other’s children. Without going into the details of this family’s tragedy, it was clear that one of the women had some sort of a psychotic break while caring for her twin’s children, and there were terrible consequences. I was haunted by the article, and found myself wondering about the relationship between twins and how that changes when one, or both, have their own children. If you have to choose between your twin and your child, who do you choose? That question became the center of the book.”

“This Bright Light,” by Emily Cavanagh, Lake Union Publishing. Available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven and on Amazon.