book review

My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier


My sister recently told me than my three-month-old niece has learned a new skill: Hugs. She can’t walk, talk, or eat solid foods, but she knows something of the power of wrapping her arms tight around you and getting a snuggle back.

My perfect baby niece knows how to give perfect baby hugs.

When My Sister Rosa’s narrator Che remembers his younger sister as a baby, Justine Larbalestier offers this chilling description: “[S]miling and laughing and hugging and kissing and crying and pointing came slowly [to Rosa]. All the things humans do with each other, and in response to one another, Rosa was slow to acquire.”

Blonde-haired and doll-like in looks alone, Che’s ten year-old sister is a textbook psychopath with textbook in-denial parents. The family is now moving from Australia to New York City, and Che is hoping he’ll be able to start a new life without Rosa interfering.

I read this book in the span of a day, and it took me by surprise: I expected a thriller with twists and turns, but Larbalestier instead offered a more introspective tale on what it’s like to have a mentally ill relative. There is definitely something very wrong with Rosa, but Che still loves her. He’s ashamed and alienated in turns, and the worst is the self-doubt: Is there something wrong with me? It’s a quandary that I think is especially pertinent to Young Adult fiction – this is an issue that young people are often forced to handle on their own, just as Che is.

Overall the book was a subtle page turner, and I loved the ending. One thing I didn’t enjoy was how firmly it takes place in contemporary New York: I live here, and I just found Che’s mystified descriptions of .99 cent pizza and the Angelika Film Center to be annoying. But I loved Larbalestier’s explorations of privilege: Che is rich, rich, rich, but he thinks he’s poor because he’s got friends even richer than he is. I see this every day in New York, and it was validating to see this trend put to paper.

The book didn’t blow me away, but I’ve been mulling it over since I read it, and it definitely satisfied. Plus: It made me grateful in a whole new way when I heard about my niece’s little hugs. c: ❤


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