As Abi would the first to know. She has spent her life in the shadow of her stunningly beautiful, glamorous older sister Cleo.
Headhunted as model when she was sixteen, Cleo has been all but lost to Abi for the last twenty years, with only a fleeting visit or brief email to connect them. So when Abi is invited to spend the summer in Cleo's large London home with her sister's perfect family, she can't bring herself to say no. Despite serious misgivings. Maybe Cleo is finally as keen as Abi to regain the closeness they shared in their youth?
But Abi is in for a shock. Soon she is left caring for her two young, bored and very spoilt nieces and handsome, unhappy brother-in-law - while Cleo plainly has other things on her mind. As Abi moves into her sister's life, a cuckoo in the nest, she wrestles with uncomfortable feelings.
Could having beauty, wealth and fame lead to more unhappiness than not having them? Who in the family really is the ugly sister?
The Ugly Sister by Jane Fallon is an examination on how and to what extent a person's looks can affect them and those around them. I appreciated the message contained within the pages (that beauty is only skin deep and true beauty comes from within), but felt that Fallon rather over-emphasised the matter over the course of the novel.
Due to the message she was conveying, it was hard to like a number of the characters within the pages. I'm used to more character growth in my chick lit novels, whereas The Ugly Sister showcased some incredibly one-dimensional people. Cleo, one of the sisters, is the main culprit. I actually dreaded reading more about her complete self-obsession, and I wondered why on earth Abi would be so hellbent on trying to work on a reconciliation. Cut your losses, girl! (that's certainly what I would be saying to a friend if she was in the same situation as Abi...)
In addition to this, I felt deeply uncomfortable with one of the romantic frissons that takes place in The Ugly Sister. For me, it was immoral in many ways. Fallon tried to deal with it as well as possible, but I just felt that it was an unnecessary part of the story. All of the rest of the story could have been just as effective (maybe more so?) if that romance had been excluded.
I did like the children, and their journey through The Ugly Sister. It was delightful watching them regain a sense of childlike joy, and become as children really should be. I did like the idea of the elder, Tara, deciding not to follow in her mother's footsteps by becoming a model - but I think it might have been more empowering had she decided to become a model, but remain grounded about the realities of what beauty actually means for a person.
One aspect that I thought Fallon dealt with well was the idea of a single mother who has concentrated so much on the bringing up and development of her child that she has neglected her own development, and has no real idea how to fill her life when that child leaves. For me, this was incredibly realistic, and I enjoyed reading Abi's thoughts on how to deal with it, and the dangers of becoming stuck in a job that ultimately didn't fulfil.
This, however, was a small part of a novel that I found to be littered with flaws. I didn't like the characters. I didn't enjoy the breaking of the fourth wall during narrative. I didn't like the central romance. And I didn't like being bludgeoned by the message that beauty is only skin-deep (seriously, I've seen Disney being subtler on the same matter). So, for me, The Ugly Sister is a pass. It was only briefly entertaining and not really worth the price of entry.