BOOK REVIEW: The Good Sister by Drusilla Campbell

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

In her novel The Good Sister, San Diego-based author Drusilla Campbell slowly peels back the layers of collusive denial binding four generations of women in a story as compelling as it is disturbing.

From the opening scene at Simone Duran’s trial for the attempted murder of three of her four young daughters, Campbell repeatedly confronts the reader with the nuanced and blatant dynamics of challenged motherhood, codependence, postpartum depression and the gradual descent into the terrible and welcoming embrace of psychosis.

Simone has suffered through multiple miscarriages, four daughters she is unequipped to nurture and a selfish husband intent on creating a son. Campbell captures Simone’s depression and neglectful parenting with a harrowingly honest yet sympathetic eye. Indeed, the book has a concluding author’s note that reveals her remembrance of her own mother’s bout with postpartum depression. (Campbell will be reading from the novel at 4 p.m Saturday, Nov. 6, at The Ink Spot in San Diego.)

While Simone’s ultimate failure is the catalyst for the plot, it is Roxanne Calahan, Simone’s older sister, who drives the story as she gradually divulges insightful vignettes, contemporary and past, that collectively explain the event and the family: Ellen Vadis, an abusive, single mother, desperate to attract a man who will stay; Gran, a loving grandmother who gave Roxanne a few years of healthy nurturing; Simone, a beautiful younger sister of borderline intelligence, coddled into utter incompetence; eight-year-old Merell, Simone’s oldest, who learns to deceive from the one she most trusts; and Simone’s three younger daughters who serve as her innocent victims.

The husbands in The Good Sister are less developed characters, but they are also less important to the story than the women, a reflection perhaps of the slowly evolving social norm of parenting falling predominantly to females. The reader does, however, learn almost enough about Johnny Duran, Simone’s husband, to understand how he could possibly continue to force her to bear children she does not want and cannot love. But his refusal to acknowledge his wife’s fragile existence is in keeping with the depth of the extended family’s dysfunction.

Indeed, although when the book is closed it is tempting to wonder that Simone was not reported to child protective services sooner, when immersed in the pages, the reader is deftly led by Campbell along the characters’ increasingly complicit paths. They are paths that inevitably end with a graphic demonstration of the human capacity to accommodate the horror of untreated mental illness and its affiliated neglect and abuse. The Good Sister is a classic tragedy, fraught with Aristotelian pathos. As much as the reader might hope for a different resolution, for a sane and salving intervention, the characters will not forsake their paths.

Despite the book’s tragic nature, Campbell does offer the possibility of hope for her characters, a hope built on revelation, honesty and the prospect of recovery. She also offers on the final pages what might be more explanation than the reader needs. Nonetheless, The Good Sister makes one weep for the characters as one weeps for the bruised child shrinking from an out-of-control parent on a playground. But unlike reality, where mothers who kill, such as Andrea Yates, are convicted as monolithic monsters, the reader of The Good Sister must consider the culpability of the entire family, not just Simone, for it is in fact a collective failure that brings them all to the devastating brink of murder.

The Good Sister is not comfortable to read or to contemplate, but it is recommended.

Reading: Saturday, November 6, from 4 to 6 p.m. Where: The Ink Spot, 710 13th St., Studio 210, San Diego Author’s website:

Crossposted at The North County Times.