Maggie, Eliza, and Tricia Sweeney grew up as a happy threesome in the idyllic seaside town of Southport, Connecticut. But their mother’s death from cancer fifteen years ago tarnished their golden-hued memories, and the sisters drifted apart. Their one touchstone is their father, Bill Sweeney, an internationally famous literary lion and college professor universally adored by critics, publishers, and book lovers. When Bill dies unexpectedly one cool June night, his shell-shocked daughters return to their childhood home. They aren’t quite sure what the future holds without their larger-than-life father, but they do know how to throw an Irish wake to honor a man of his stature.
But as guests pay their respects and reminisce, one stranger, emboldened by whiskey, has crashed the party. It turns out that she too is a Sweeney sister.
When Washington, DC based journalist Serena Tucker had her DNA tested on a whim a few weeks earlier, she learned she had a 50% genetic match with a childhood neighbor—Maggie Sweeney of Southport, Connecticut. It seems Serena’s chilly WASP mother, Birdie, had a history with Bill Sweeney—one that has remained totally secret until now.
Once the shock wears off, questions abound. What does this mean for William’s literary legacy? Where is the unfinished memoir he’s stashed away, and what will it reveal? And how will a fourth Sweeney sister—a blond among redheads—fit into their story?
By turns revealing, insightful, and uproarious, The Sweeney Sisters is equal parts cautionary tale and celebration—a festive and heartfelt look at what truly makes a family.
THE SWEENEY SISTERS BY LIAN DOLAN EXCERPT
“Does this come in teal?”
Liza looked up from her computer and tried not to make any noise that would indicate her disdain. In the decade since she’d opened the Sweeney Jones Gallery, she’d heard them all before—Doesthis come in teal? Do you have this one in a larger size? Can you find me something that goes with chocolate brown?—questions that indicated the customer had a limited knowledge of art, but quite possibly an unlimited budget for it. These two, staring at the front of the gallery, must be empty nesters with time, money, and a few blank walls, Liza guessed. She didn’t want to embarrass the tan woman in the bright yellow sundress. Or her companion, the man in the golf shirt embroidered with the company logo of a local hedge fund (Olympus? Pegasus? Icarus? They were all the same). But Liza didn’t have to indulge them, either; she wasn’t concerned about her Yelp rating for customer service.
As the owner of the gallery, Liza had an obligation to her artists and to her own reputation. Was Liza going to discover this generation’s Basquiat painting sailboats and golden labs somewhere in coastal Connecticut? Of course not. But she wasn’t managing a Pier One, either.
“I can’t say that we have that exact oil in teal,” Liza said, rising from behind her desk and making her way over to the couple near the entrance of the gallery. “The artist is Anna Oakland. She lives in the area and much of her work involves the natural world, capturing Long Island Sound, the marshes, the wetlands, our flora and fauna. But her gift is truly abstracting the traditional landscape or still life. This piece is a study of the dogwood trees that bloom here in May, hence the pinkness of the piece. So, no, the piece doesn’t come in blue because dogwoods don’t come in blue. But we have more of her work in the gallery, including several paintings of Southport Harbor. They’re . . . teal-ish. You might find what you’re looking for upstairs. Let me show you.”
“Oh, thank you. We’re visiting from Jacksonville. I mean, my husband’s here for work and meetings and such . . .”
“Honey, she doesn’t need our whole life story,” the husband said, cutting off his wife as Liza imagined he’d done a thousand times.
“I want her to know that we’re visiting but adore her little town. It’s like a postcard, but better. I thought a sweet little painting in our guest bathroom would be a lovely souvenir.”
Southport was a postcard to the untrained eye: two-and three-hundred-year-old historic homes, most in pristine condition with expensive paint jobs; glorious landscaping and water views; built around a charming harbor, once of importance during the time of the Revolution. Its antiques shops, art galleries, a gourmet food market, a classic pharmacy, and beloved restaurants and bars had remained impervious to chain stores and financial ups and downs. Even the fire hydrants, painted like Colonial sailors in blue jackets and tricorn hats, were Insta-perfect. From the outside, the town hadn’t changed since the 1700s. Inside the pre-Revolutionary saltboxes, the Greek Revivals and the Victorians, though, it was a different story altogether.
“What a lovely idea,” Liza responded, as if Lady Jacksonville had single-handedly cracked the Code of Decorative Arts. In truth, about 20 percent of Liza’s business was exactly this: aspirational purchases by visitors from all over the country who found themselves smitten by what this Connecticut town promised—tradition and propriety—fiercely protected and quietly preserved. “Where New York meets New England,” as the town’s website declared. It was exactly why she represented artists like Anna Oakland who could take the familiar (New England) and push it slightly forward toward the edge (New York). And a thousand-dollar sale is a thousand-dollar sale, Liza thought, moving confidently toward the staircase. Not bad for a Wednesday morning.
Liza was, as a lifelong resident of Southport who had taken several years of art history courses in college (okay, the University of Vermont and she didn’t technically graduate, but still), an expert with ten years of experience curating a collection of tasteful contemporary oils, watercolors, lithographs, and the occasional mixed media piece that hit the sweet spot where abstract art meets interior design. She had a good eye, a deep respect for her artists, and the cultured veneer her clientele trusted. Liza understood the importance of this combination of assets.
She had been raised well and married better, at least in terms of financial stability. Her business was a success and not the tax write-off her husband, Whit, expected when he gave her a lease and seed money as a Christmas gift, thanks to his particularly large bonus that year. As Whit handed her the keys to the front door, he said, “Here’s a little something to keep you busy.” Liza did get busy, creating a space for art that the townspeople could point to as a sign of their impeccable taste and which she could use to establish her own identity outside of her father’s well-known reputation or her husband’s centuries-old local heritage.
So, no, Liza didn’t have to indulge her visitors, but she also understood, after ten years in sales, that you never really knew who had money and who didn’t. She’d made that mistake early in her career, judging a client by his brand of shoes and letting him walk out the door, learning later that he was a newly minted billionaire. Never again would she let her unconscious bias against cheap footwear or loud clothing cloud her business practices. Just then, her cell phone rang. The screen flashed the name “Julia Ruiz,” her father’s housekeeper, a title that didn’t even come close to describing the services and the peace of mind she’d provided over the last two decades. Julia was more like an entire home-care agency in one: housekeeper; day nurse; cook; dog groomer; plant waterer; and life coach. She had come to work for the Sweeney family when Liza’s mother was sick and never left. After Maeve died, she cared for Liza’s younger sisters, Maggie and Tricia, and now, for her aging father.
Liza had been Julia’s point person since day one; the two of them kept the Sweeneys on track. It was unusual for Julia to call in the middle of the workday. She usually communicated via text or fridge Post-it note. “Excuse me, please,” Liza said to her new best friend, who was headed to the second floor. “I have to take this. Feel free to poke around on your own upstairs. I’ll meet you in a minute.”
What Liza would remember when she thought back on that phone call was the pleading in Julia’s voice, so unlike her usual softly accented pragmatism, as if rushing to the big house on Willow Lane could have made a difference. Liza would remember the whoosh of panic that swept through her, giving way to complete focus, allowing her somehow to explain to the Floridians that she had to close the gallery immediately due to a family emergency.
The man in the golf shirt looked concerned. “Is there anything I can do to be of service?”
Apologizing while ushering them out of the door of Sweeney Jones, Liza reassured them, “It’s nothing serious, only something that needs my attention. I understand you’re leaving Southport, but please, let me get your contact information. I’ll have my assistant send you photos this afternoon of some paintings that would be perfect for your guest bathroom. We’ll cover the shipping as a thank-you.”
While the husband handed Liza a card, the wife asked if she could let them know the paint color of the gallery door, as long as she was going to be emailing them. “This is the kind of blue I’m looking for.”
“It’s Benjamin Moore Kensington Blue,” Liza said so automatically she startled the wife.
“Well, thank you. Honey, can you put that in your phone?” She turned to Liza with her own surprise, a warm hug that Liza accepted.
“I hope everyone in your family is fine. God bless you.”
“God bless you” was something that Liza could never pull off saying in a million years, but coming from the petite blonde in the yellow sundress, Liza found the sentiment comforting. It allowed her to take a deep, deep breath to steady her hands so she could lock the door of the gallery. She didn’t even bother with the alarm. She’d call her assistant Emily or her Sunday saleswoman Jenny once she got to Willow Lane.
But first, Elizabeth Sweeney Jones had to call her sisters.
From THE SWEENEY SISTERS by Lian Dolan, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2020 by Lian Dolan. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers