Initially, the trappings of her opulent lifestyle smother Samantha Freeman, but no one sees her angst. Even the most intimate characters in Sondra Helene’s debut novel reveal only pieces of themselves to one another in this deeply personal story. The title of her novel, Appearances (She Writes Press), epitomizes an overriding theme personified through the story of two sisters and their families as they deal with intense emotions hidden beneath the surface of their seemingly perfect lives.
Samantha and her husband, Richard, appear to be happily married. They present a public persona of a successful and stylish couple engaged in an affluent Boston social life in 2003 accessorized with expensive cars and elaborate social functions. Underneath this glamorous surface, Richard feels neglected because of Samantha’s close relationship with her sister, Elizabeth, while Samantha resents Richard’s rude treatment of Elizabeth and her sister’s husband, Jake. Samantha and Richard’s conflict escalates once Elizabeth, in her early 40’s, reveals her diagnosis with stage 4 lung cancer.
Elizabeth attempts to control who knows what about her diagnosis. The story, told through Samantha’s point of view, follows Elizabeth for two and a half years as she lives with her disease and as Samantha remains ever by her side. Throughout all the treatments, Samantha misses only one medical appointment with her sister.
Just as this devotion to her sister further distances Samantha from Richard while Elizabeth’s disease progresses, Jake’s interactions with Samantha also seem designed to draw Samantha away from her husband. Jake’s character masks his fear and sorrow about his wife’s disease with evenings obligations away from home. Whether training for a fundraising marathon dedicated to finding a cure for cancer or attending numerous business dinners, his absence exposes his inability to cope with a future alone.
By surrounding her main characters in material wealth, Sondra Helene expertly juxtaposes their internal feelings and external manifestations. The women dress in “Oscar-worthy gowns” believing that how you look molds how you feel, real or imagined. The sisters believe this myth until the cancer diagnosis impacts both of their lives. Helene carefully weaves this predominant theme of appearances throughout the novel while slowly revealing the layers of each main character. Even the realistic descriptions of supporting characters such as doctors, therapists, hospice workers, friends and extended family enhance the strong narrative and beg the reader to question what lies beneath their words and appearances.
Sixty years ago, acclaimed sociologist Erving Goffman wrote, “We are all just actors trying to control and manage our public image, we act based on how others might see us.” Real change in the main characters only occurs when they no longer care so deeply about their public personas. In the final part of the novel, the main characters change, physically for some and emotionally for all as Helene brings their raw emotions to the surface slowly and cautiously by unveiling their backstory and allowing them to express their vulnerabilities.
Sondra Helene writes thoughtfully and believably with colorful settings, complicated characters, and an unpredictable plot. Indeed, her theme of appearances symbolizes the scars and secrets the sisters and their husbands mask from public view and one another. There are no villains in this story, only those characters with hidden unresolved pain. In the end, the author offers no easy answers, only hope. Likewise, this novel leaves me hoping there will be more to come from Sondra Helene.
Appearances is now available for purchase.
About Sondra Helene
Sondra Helene is a board member and writer at GrubStreet, Boston’s center for literary life. Her publications include “Jewish Magic Protected My Sister” in Lilith Magazine, “The Switch” in Voices of Caregiving: Stories of Courage, Comfort and Strength; and “Losing My Sister and the Long Road Back” on better50.com. She has studied fiction and nonfiction at GrubStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center, Gotham Writers Workshop, the Sirenland Writers Conference, and Kripalu. She is a graduate of Ithaca College and Columbia University. A past president of the Friends of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, she has also been involved with fund-raising for the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Lung Cancer Research Foundation. Helene is a Life Member of Hadassah, a member of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and a former overseer of the Boston Ballet. She has two grown children and lives outside of Boston with her husband.