RICHMOND — March 2010 was very good to Nancy Jensen. She got a book agent. Then she sold her first novel.
The book, The Sisters, was released this week. Jensen will sign copies at the Kentucky Book Fair on Saturday in Frankfort. She is one of more than 180 writers who will appear at the 30th annual event.
The Sisters (St. Martin's Press, $24.99), set largely in Kentucky and Indiana over 80 years, follows the lives of sisters Mabel and Bertie, who are separated by a mixture of catastrophe and carelessness.
The book has drawn national attention from O Magazine as one of "10 Titles to Pick Up Now" and one of four books chosen by Good Housekeeping magazine in its feature "Goodreads."
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A review of The Sisters on Bookpage.com describes Jensen as "such an accomplished writer that she gives each character her own drama, and her own pain."
Although the novel follows both sisters from flirty adolescence into feeble old age, it also traces the histories of the families they build, biologically and by generous chance.
As a writer, Jensen's style resembles that of Anne Tyler — rueful portraits of souls who live through unbearable times and, if they flinch, do so only for a moment or two. Others have told Jensen her work reminds them of Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge), Marylynne Robinson (Housekeeping, Gilead) and Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club).
The fictional towns of Juniper, Ky., and Newman, Ind., are not places that Jensen could find on a map. Juniper may be somewhere near Louisville, and Newman is something like New Albany, where Jensen grew up, although Jensen said it's not really the same place.
Jensen is a Kentuckian these days, teaching for 17 years at the University of the Cumberlands before moving this year to Eastern Kentucky University, where she is an assistant professor in the English department. Eventually she will concentrate on teaching in EKU's master of fine arts program.
In The Sisters, characters make choices that are ill-considered, painful, perverse and sometimes just flat mean.
For example, Bertie does something while escaping a flood with her daughter that some would find horrifying. Later, in telling the story, she shuns responsibility, attributing the action instead to an unidentified woman. But whether she has regretted her action or is simply embarrassed by it, the book leaves deliberately murky.
Although the book is about family bonds, there's no Lifetime TV movie feel in it — no music-swelling resolution that all will be made right.
"Sometimes we make choices that diverge away from what we want," Jensen said.
She did not want her plot to appear contrived, even at the risk of disappointing readers who might envision a more conventionally satisfying end.
"I do appreciate that literature is a way of bringing order to the chaos of life, but it's a thematic order, not literal," she said.
Do the sisters and their assorted offspring come back together in one giant, diverse family stream? That would be spoiling the novel.
"You have to be true to what they would do," Jensen said. "Sometimes we're able to admit our guilt, ... but sometimes we're not able to reckon with our choices."
In the continuing battle that authors fight about whether the author or the character is the master of the action, Jensen cuts somewhere down the middle. The things readers wish would happen sometimes don't happen in her novel, she said — just as they might not happen in life.
"Having created the characters," Jensen said. "I want to infuse them with free will."