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Friday, 21 May 2021

REVIEW: The Lost Sister by Kathleen McGurl

The Lost Sister by Kathleen McGurl
Genre: Historical fiction, Dual timeline, Contemporary fiction, Chick lit
Read: 14th May 2021
Published 12th May 2021

★★★★★ 4.5 stars (rounded up)


Three sisters. Three ships. One heartbreaking story.

1911. As Emma packs her trunk to join the ocean liner Olympic as a stewardess, she dreams of earning enough to provide a better life for both her sisters. With their photograph tucked away in her luggage, she promises to be back soon – hoping that sickly Lily will keep healthy, and wild Ruby will behave. But neither life at sea nor on land is predictable, and soon the three sisters’ lives are all changed irrevocably…

Now. When Harriet finds her late grandmother’s travelling trunk in the attic, she’s shocked to discover a photo of three sisters inside – her grandmother only ever mentioned one sister, who died tragically young. Who is the other sister, and what happened to her? Harriet’s questions lead her to the story of three sister ships, Olympic, Titanic and Britannic, and a shattering revelation about three sisters torn apart…

Don’t miss the latest novel from the USA Today bestselling author of The Secret of the Chateau. Perfect for fans of The Beekeeper’s Promise and The Forgotten Village!


I'm excited to be taking part in the #BlogTour for Kathleen McGurl's heartbreaking tale THE LOST SISTER.

Three sisters. Three sister ships. One heartbreaking story.

Oh my word! THE LOST SISTER is a compelling dual timeline tale with one family at its heart tragically torn apart both in the past and present. Spanning more than 100 years, family dynamics are explored between sisters and the yearning for independence fraying the bonds that hold them all together. Tension is rife within each household plagued by children leaving home, those left behind, duty, obligations, a wealth of misunderstandings, health issues and decidedly strong personalities. And despite the passage of time, while some things change some things remain the same.

Southampton 1911: Ever since she was 4 years old and experienced the ferry crossing to the Isle of Wight, Emma Higgins has had a love for the sea. So when the White Star Line introduces its new liner Olympic and is looking for new staff, Emma leaves her mundane job at a local hotel and signs up as a second class stewardess for the liner's maiden voyage. Excited at the prospect of taking to the sea, she cannot wait to share her news with her mother and two sisters. 

As the oldest, Emma has always felt responsible for helping support her family since their father died when she was 14 and they ultimately had to leave the Isle of Wight and return to Southampton. Ma was a seamstress who took in laundry and sewing jobs to keep them going but as her eyesight began to fail, Emma's wages were needed more and more. The middle sister Ruby also worked at the same hotel and when Emma shared her news, instead of being happy for her, she became resentful that she was to be left behind to do Emma's chores as well as her own while her sister lived it up on the high seas. One of the chores was to help their mother with her younger sickly sister Lily who, after a bout of tuberculosis as a young child, has never fully recovered taking ill at oftentimes. Ma and Lily are, of course, thrilled at Emma's new adventure wishing her well and looking forward to her return and all the stories she'll be able to tell. Ruby instead rebelled, staying out most of the night and even taking up with local married man Harry Paine giving her a well as her family by association. She refused to be held back by the mundane existence she was living, looking for excitement wherever she could find it.

Emma thoroughly enjoys the maiden voyage to New York on Olympic, making new friends Violet and Mary as well as a potential love interest in Martin. The work was hard but rewarding as she took in the sights and enjoyed the feeling of freedom on the seas. Upon returning home, she was full of stories of her experiences sharing them with her family, although Ruby remained consistent in her absence. Quickly signing on for the next voyage with her new friends, Emma enjoyed life as a stewardess on Olympic. There was even news that two more sister ships were to follow - Titanic and Britannic. Each voyage was about three weeks in duration afterwhich she would be home for another week or two before sailing again.

The following year 1912, Ruby turned 18. So when her relationship with Harry had fallen apart, she was understandably devastated, but decided to follow in her older sister's footsteps and sign on to become a stewardess. Emma made a promise to her Ma that she would look out for her sister so when they went to sign on they were to do so on Olympic. But then Emma spied Martin and while her back was turned, Ruby went and signed on to Titanic. Inevitably, Emma had to change her sign on to Titanic in an attempt to keep her word, much to Ruby's annoyance who was fiercely independent and wanted to go alone. 

But as history goes, Titanic never made it to New York...and as fate would have it, neither would Ruby it seemed. Emma was devastated with the downing of Titanic and the loss of so many people. An image that would remain with her forever. She vowed then never to take to the seas again.

2019: Seventy year old Harriet Wilson is clearing out her attic when she comes across an old sea trunk that had been her grandmother's when she worked as a stewardess on Olympic. Believing it to be locked, she is surprised when her daughter Sally unlatches and opens it, revealing a hundred year old memories buried deep within. In the trunk amidst the moth-eaten uniform and her grandparents' wedding photo was another photo she had never seen before. One of three young girls on the cusp of womanhood. Harriet recognises a younger version of her grandmother but the remaining two are strangers. And yet they all look so alike there could be no denying that they are sisters. But her grandmother spoke of only one sister - surely she didn't have another?

Despite the fact that she should be clearing out boxes so she could downsize, Harriet couldn't help but investigate further. With the help of her friend Sheila, the two women check the 1911 census records to establish whether or not there were indeed three sisters. This in turn leads her to sign up to and begin researching and building her family tree. And when Sheila informs her of an exhibition in Southampton on Titanic, the two women attend and are shocked to discover names they now recognise on both the survivors and the deceased lists. Who'd have thought that Harriet's family was linked to Titanic?

In the midst of Harriet's new interest in genealogy, is her grandson's battle with leukemia and her fifteen year estrangement with younger daughter Davina. Harriet wishes nothing more than to be reunited with her independent wayward daughter and her two granddaughters whom she has never met. But Davina only contacts Harriet on her terms, blocking her number and never revealing where they are. Desperate for just a bit of her daughter, Harriet is resigned to just accepting the snippets that Davina offers. It is all incredibly one-sided and unfair to keep the blame going on for fifteen years...with Harriet's husband going to his grave without ever seeing their youngest daughter again or meeting his two granddaughters.

And then, Sally's son Jerome takes a turn for the worse when the chemotherapy he'd been on didn't work and all that's left now is a bone marrow transplant. So in the midst of all this, Harriet must juggle Sally, Jerome, Davina's sporadic calls, packing up her house, moving to a new one and continuing the journey of her family's past. But will she find all that she is looking for? And can the sins of the past repair those of the present?

An engrossing story from beginning to end, THE LOST SISTER sweeps you away to another time and into the history of Titanic and her two lesser known sisters, Olympic and Britannic. Kathleen McGurl has meticulously researched the history of these liners interspersing them with a fictional tale of three other sisters around the same time. The journey she takes us on is as emotional as it is heartbreaking through her wonderful cast of characters. Her depiction of Titanic's demise was breathtaking as well as poignant as one of the most famous events in history is interwoven with this book's own tragic tale.

In addition, a character featured in this story Violet Jessop was actually a real person who, as a stewardess and later a nurse, did in fact survive the disastrous Titanic and Britannic sinkings, her memoirs posthumously published and influencing McGurl in that which was to become THE LOST SISTER. It brings an essence of reality to the story that some of which that took place within these pages really did happen.

Of the alternating timelines, it is Emma's story I was more captivated with rather than Harriet's although that indeed became interesting the deeper she delved into the past. I found the similarities between Ruby and Davina as frustrating as each other. Both women were strong-willed and fiercely independent refusing to be held back by duty or obligation. I found Ruby's view of Emma to be similar to that of Davina's of Sally - bossy, being the main aspect. Is it because Emma and Sally were the eldest and therefore felt more responsible while Ruby and Davina were the second children and rebelled against conforming to anyone's idea of how they should behave?

Whilst THE LOST SISTER is a powerful tale of tragedy, loss and regrets it also one of reconciliation, hope and forgiveness. Ensure you have a box of tissues handy when reading this because you will need them. And while I did guess a couple of the hidden surprises in this story it didn't alter my opinion of it. My ratings and opinions are based on my overall enjoyment and those that tug at my heartstrings generally win favour without a doubt.

THE LOST SISTER is a beautiful tale that is an enjoyable and easy read with dual timelines that parallel nicely. It is one of those stories that will remain with you long after you have turned the last page.

Recommended for those who love dual timelines. For fans of Lorna Cook, Fiona Valpy, Suzanne Kelman and Suzanne Goldring.

I would like to thank #KathleenMcGurl and #RachelsRandomResources and #HQStories for an ARC of #TheLostSister in exchange for an honest review.


Kathleen McGurl lives in Christchurch, UK, with her husband. She has two sons who have both now left home.

Kathleen always wanted to write, and for many years was waiting until she had the time. Eventually she came to the bitter realisation that no one would pay her for a year off work to write a book, so she sat down and started to write one anyway. Since then she has published several novels with HQ and self-published another. She has also sold dozens of short stories to women's magazines, and written three How To books for writers.

After a long career in the IT industry she became a full time writer in 2019. When she's not writing, she's often out running, slowly.

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