The Language of Sisters

The Language of Sisters

by Cathy Lamb


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From acclaimed author Cathy Lamb comes a warm and thoughtful novel about the secrets that can break or unite a family—and the voices that resonate throughout our lives...
Toni Kozlovsky can’t explain how she knows exactly what her sisters are feeling—only that the connection seems to happen out of the blue, just when they need it most. Since Toni, Valerie, and Ellie were little girls growing up in Communist Russia, their parents have insisted it’s simply further proof that the Kozlovskys are special and different.
Now a crime and justice reporter, Toni lives on a yellow tugboat on Oregon’s Willamette River. As far as her parents are concerned, the pain of their old life and their dangerous escape should remain buried in the Moscow they left behind, as should the mysterious past of their adopted brother, Dmitry. But lately, Toni’s talent for putting on a smile isn’t enough to keep memories at bay.
Valerie, a prosecuting attorney, wages constant war against the wrongs she could do nothing about as a child. Youngest sister Ellie is engaged to marry an Italian, breaking her mother’s heart in the process. Toni fears she’s about to lose her home, while the hard edged DEA agent down the dock keeps trying to break through her reserve. Meanwhile, beneath the culture clashes and endearing quirks within her huge, noisy, loving family are deeper secrets that Toni has sworn to keep—even from the one person she longs to help most.
As poignant as it is humorous, The Language of Sisters explores the echoes of the past that can cling to the present—and how love, laughter, and family can rescue us time and again.

“Lamb’s story is earnest, heartwarming and, at times, heartbreaking.”—RT Book Reviews

“The blending of three or more generations and the secrets they harbor keeps this story moving briskly, culminating in a satisfying ending that makes us believe that despite heartache and angst, there can be such a thing as happily ever after.”—New York Journal of Books
“Stevie’s a winning heroine.”—Publishers Weekly
An Indie Next List Notable Book
“A story of strength and reconciliation and change.”—The Sunday Oregonian
“If you loved Terms of Endearment, the Ya Ya Sisterhood, and Steel Magnolias, you will love Henry’s Sisters. Cathy Lamb just keeps getting better and better.”—The Three Tomatoes Book Club
“Charming.”—Publishers Weekly
Julia's Chocolates is wise, tender, and very funny. In Julia Bennett, Cathy Lamb has created a deeply wonderful character, brave and true. I loved this beguiling novel about love, friendship and the enchantment of really good chocolate.”—Luanne Rice, New York Times bestselling author

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780758295101
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 08/30/2016
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 509,649
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Cathy Lamb is the bestselling author of twelve novels, including The Man She Married, No Place I’d Rather Be, What I Remember Most, The Last Time I Was Me, Henry’s Sisters and Julia’s Chocolates. She lives with her family in Oregon and can be found online at

Read an Excerpt

The Language of Sisters



Copyright © 2016 Cathy Lamb
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7582-9511-8


I was talented at pickpocketing.

I knew how to slip my fingers in, soft and smooth, like moving silk. I was lightning quick, a sleight of hand, a twist of the wrist. I was adept at disappearing, at hiding, at waiting, until it was safe to run, to escape.

I was a whisper, drifting smoke, a breeze.

I was a little girl, in the frigid cold of Moscow, under the looming shadow of the Soviet Union, my coat too small, my shoes too tight, my stomach an empty shell.

I was desperate. We were desperate.

Survival stealing, my sisters and I called it.

Had we not stolen, we might not have survived.

But we did. We survived. My father barely, my mother only through endless grit and determination, but now we are here, in Oregon, a noisy family, who does not talk about what happened back in Russia, twenty-five years ago. It is best to forget, my parents have told us, many times.

"Forget it happened. It another life, no?" my father says. "This here, this our true life. We Americans now. Americans!"

We tried to forget, but in the inky-black silence of night, when Mother Russia intrudes upon our dreams, like a swishing scythe, a crooked claw emerging from the ruins of tragedy, when we remember family members buried under the frozen wasteland of the Soviet Union's far reaches, we are all haunted, some more than others.

You would never guess by looking at my family what some of us have done and what has been done to us. You would never sense our collective memory, what we share, what we hide.

We are the Kozlovskys.

We like to think we are good people.

Most of the time, we are. Quite good.

And yet, when cornered, when one of us is threatened, we come up swinging.

But, pfft.

All that. In the past. Best to forget what happened.

As my mother says, in her broken English, wagging her finger, "No use going to Moscow in your head. We are family. We are the Kozlovskys. That all we need to know. The rest, those secrets, let them lie down."

Yes, do.

Let all the secrets lie.

For as long as they'll stay down.

They were coming up fast. I could feel it.


"A Italian!" my mother, Svetlana, howled, slamming a cast-iron pan onto her stove. "What is this? My Elvira marrying a Italian? Why not a Russian? What wrong with Russian? I been cursed. Like black magic spell."

English is my mother's fourth language. Russian and Ukrainian come first. She is also conversationally fluent in French, which is the language she likes to swear in. Her English is never perfect, but it goes downhill quickly based on how upset she is.

"That sister of yours, Antonia" — she put her palms up to the ceiling — "Elvira is a ... how you say it? I know now the word: rebel. She a rebel. I pray for her, but I knew when she born, your aunt Polina say to me, 'This one, she will cause your heart to cry!' And see?" She pointed at her chest. "Tears."

"Mama. Your heart is not crying. Ellie says she is in love with Gino."

"Love! Love!" she scoffed. She pushed a strand of her black hair back, the same color as mine, only mine fell down my back in waves and hers was to her shoulders in a bell shape. Our blue eyes were the same shade, too. I looked at her and I knew what I'd look like in twenty-two years. Definitely encouraging.

"I know about love. I have it with your papa. I know about this passion I have for him. He and I, we have the, what you call it?" She lowered her voice, for effect. "The biology in the bedroom."

"Chemistry. You and Papa have chemistry." I rolled my eyes and braced myself, then ate one of her chocolate fudge cookies. They are beyond delicious.

"No! Not chemistry. That chemicals. I say we have the biology in the bedroom because biology is body. He cannot stay away from me, from this." She indicated her body from neck to crotch with one hand, head held high. My mother is statuesque. She curves. She still rocks it, I have to say.

"I cannot stay away from his manly hood, either." She grabbed a knife and held it in the air, as if making a solemn vow. "I say that in the truth."

I was going to need many chocolate fudge cookies that afternoon, that was my truth.

"But Antonia, your sister" — her voice pitched again, in accusation, as if I were in charge of Ellie — "she cannot have the biology for a Italian. She has it, it in her blood, for a Russian! A strong Russian man."

My mother started banging pans around, muttering in Ukrainian. I loved her kitchen. It was huge, bright, and opened up to the family room. There were granite counters, white cabinets, and a backsplash with square tiles in every bold color of the rainbow. My mother loves bright colors. Says it reminds her, "I am no longer living in a gray and black world, fear clogging my throat like a snake."

She had her favorite blue armoire, formerly owned by a bakery to showcase their pies, built into the design and used it as a pantry. A butcher block counter was attached to a long, old wood table that had previously been used in a train station. Blue pendant lights, three of them, fell above the train station table. The windows were huge, at my mother's request. She wanted to be able to look out and know immediately that she was in America, not Moscow. "Free," she said. "And safe from evil."

This kitchen was where all of her new recipes for my parents' restaurant, Svetlana's Kitchen, were tried out. This kitchen was thousands of miles away from the tiny, often nonfunctioning kitchen of my childhood in Moscow. The one where I once watched her wash blood off her trembling hands — not her blood — in our stained and crumbling sink.

"Elvira should marry Russian man. She will grow to love him, like a sunflower grow. Like a turnip grow."

"You were in love with Papa when you married him. No one asked you to grow to love your husband like a turnip."

"Ah yes, that. I in love with your papa when I see him at university. I told my father after the first kissy, you must plan wedding for Alexei and me right away, right now, because soon I lay naked with him."

Oh boy. Here we go. I poured myself a cup of coffee. My mother makes coffee strong enough for me to grow chest hairs.

"I make the love with him." She grabbed a spatula and pointed it at me. "I say that to my father."

I imagined my mother's sweet, late father, Anatoly Sabonis, hearing that from her. Poor man. I'm sure he momentarily stopped breathing. "I know, Mama, you told me."

"It was how I felt. Here." She put her spatula to her heart. "So in one month I am married to Alexei, but my father not let me be alone with him for one minute before wedding. And still, in the bedroom, your papa and I —"

"I know, Mama. You love Papa. Like Ellie loves Gino."

"No! Not like that." She smacked the spatula on the countertop. "Elvira fall in love with non Russian. A nonrusseman."

"A nonrusseman?"

"Yes. I make that word up myself. It clever."

"Is it one word?"

"Yes. One word. More efficient. More quickly."

"Are you done?"

"No, I not done. Never done. That Italian not Russian. Does not have our genes. Our pants, you know? The jeans. Not have our history in his blood."

"Mama, what's in our blood is a lot of Russian vodka."

"Yes, devil drink. Fixes and dixes so many Russians, but we are Russian American. American Russians. We marry other American Russians."

"Unless we fall in love with Italian Americans, then we marry them. Or we marry Hawaiians, like Valerie did."

"Kai is my new son." My mother adores my sister's husband. "Not this Gino. No and no. He not enough. I see them together and I no see the love."

I didn't see it, either, from Ellie to Gino, but Gino loved Ellie. I decided to keep my mouth shut.

My mother whipped the spatula through the air like a lasso. "But she plans a wedding. Me oh my God bless, Mother Mary help me."

"I like Italian food."

"Italian food!" My mother gasped. "Italian food? At the wedding of my Elvira? No. Russian food. We have Russian food. If we not have Russian food, I not come."

"Ellie wants you to come."

She crossed her arms over her impressive bosom. "No. Not unless Russian food."

"It will be Russian and Italian food, I heard. A blend." I tried not to laugh.

"That not happening." Fists to air. She looked to the heavens for divine intervention. So dramatic. "It cannot be. I am good Russian mother. I be good to her and now! A Italian. My Elvira choices it. Where went I wrong?"

"Gino is not an it."

I watched my mother stomp around the kitchen as she yanked out more pans. Her pans, cast iron, from my father, are her favorite possession. She cried when he brought them home many years ago as a gift, when I was a teenager, as did my father. It wasn't about the pans. It was about loss, despair, and a promise kept.

My mother loves to cook, and when she's stressed she cooks until the stress is gone. The cooking and baking can last for days.

Her customers love it, as when my mother is stressed she makes specials for the restaurant. It is a quiet message that goes through the Russian American community. "Svetlana is upset? What is she upset about?" And then, quickly, "What is she making? Last time I had fish soup with salmon, halibut, and lemon. It warmed my bones. Do you know if she's making that again?"

The restaurant is packed, always, but when the Russian community hears about my mother's temper going off, we are more packed than usual, line out the door.

She banged those special pans, muttered, in English and Russia, swore in French, then it was back to English. She has a doctorate in Russian Literature and used to be a professor when we lived in Moscow before our lives collapsed.

"You children and your papa, though he tire me out in the bedroom, you are my whole life. We love the children. But constant it is!" She yelled and swung another pan onto the stove. "Always these problems. Elvira want to marry a Italian it. Your other sister around the bad criminals, all the time! And you" — she pointed at me, this time with a wooden spoon, wielded like a sword — "you write about the crime. That make criminals mad at you. Why like this? More worries. More anxious for me. I worry, all the time!"

Yes, I write about crime for the Oregon Standard, our state's largest newspaper. But to my credit, I hate it. I would probably quit soon. Another problem, which I was not going to share with my mother so she would not get "more anxious," is that the dock where my home is — a yellow tugboat — is about to be shut down. Yes, I live in a yellow tugboat on the Willamette River.

I was also climbing my way back up from a soul-slashing experience that had knocked me to my knees, then whipped me to my butt, then pushed me down face-first into the dirt and there I lay for a long time. I am now breathing, and I have told myself that I will not be facedown in the dirt again, but sometimes I say that when I am facedown.

"Lookie. See my hair. White streak. From the worry. It my worry hair."

My mother did have a white streak. It started at her widow's peak, to the left center of her head, the same place where Valerie, Ellie, and I had our widow's peaks. It's where the language of sisters and brothers comes in, she's told us, handed down through the Sabonis family line, to communicate, silently, with our siblings. It's not rationally or scientifically explicable, so I won't try, but sometimes I can hear my sisters talking to me in my head.

"It's vogue, Mama."

"No, not vogue. This old woman hair. Caused by my children. Nieces and nephews, too. All the peoples in the Kozlovsky family. I blame you, your sisters. And!" She slammed down a container of flour. "You know who, who worries me the most!"

I knew who. I worried, too.

She flung a pile of spice bottles down on the counter. "We are Kozlovskys, we are good people, but this not right. You talk to Elvira, Antonia, I tell you, you fix this." She shook her finger at me. "Fix it right up, like you do. Quick. You do a quickie. No nonrusseman."

When I left, she gave me cheese dumplings and a container of roast goose with apples and dill. My mother has to feed her children. A daughter leaving the house without a container of food would undoubtedly starve by noon tomorrow, her skeleton pecked at by crows.

"I love you, my Antonia." She hugged and kissed me.

"Love you, too, Mama."

"Now I make new recipe. I call it 'My Childrens Makes Me Worry.'"

* * *

I headed home to my tugboat.

Six months ago, I sold my home in the hills above Portland and moved to my yellow tugboat with red trim. I was in a dark pit I couldn't crawl out of because each time I looked around, a memory bashed me in the face.

I cried for days when I sold that home, but I knew it had to be done. The house was white with blue shutters with a willow tree in front. Now I live on a dock in a marina with other people who live on houseboats.

You have to walk by three houseboats to get to my three-story yellow tugboat with red rails and trim and a red door. Petey, a friend of my father's, used it for twenty-five years to haul timber, grain, sand, and gravel on barges up and down the river, but he retired and didn't want it.

I wanted to live on the water, away from the city, as natural as I could get without a long commute to work, so I bought it from Petey, who moved to a condo in Miami. I then had it gutted and remodeled before I moved in, with a full bedroom added to the second floor. I needed something to think about other than the memory bashing, and it helped to have a project.

I rented a slip on the dock and settled in.

The whole tugboat is about a thousand square feet. I painted the small entry white. Two square windows on either side let in the light. I've taken photos of my river "pets," which include two mallard ducks that always wander up on my deck named Mr. and Mrs. Quackenbusch; a blue heron named Dixie; a bald eagle, which disappears for days, that I call Anonymous; a golden eagle I named Maxie; two beavers named Big Teeth and Big Tooth; and river otter. There are a number of river otter, so I call all of them Sergeant Ott.

I matted the photos in blue with white frames.

I have a tiny hallway, then a bathroom off to the right. I have a shower over a claw-foot tub. Across the hallway is the kitchen with a huge window over a white apron sink. I had the cabinets painted light blue; the counters are a beige, swirling granite; and the backsplash is made of blue, gray, and beige glass.

The kitchen opens to my family room. I have white wainscoting on the lower half, light beige paint on the top half, and a blue couch in the shape of a V. The blue couch has a multitude of pillows, made from thick, shiny, fuzzy, painted, mirrored, arty, lacy, silky fabrics from all over the world, sewn by my sisters and me. I have a glass dining table in the corner near the French doors, which leads to the tugboat's lower deck. On either side of the French doors are more square windows.

Up a skinny spiral staircase, on the second floor, is a semicircle office with a desk; a closet with shelving on both sides to house my clothing collection/obsession that used to house the crew in bunks; and my bedroom, the comforter and walls white. The bedroom has windows on both walls, and another set of French doors leads to a second deck.

A ladder in the office leads to the wheelhouse up top where Captain Petey used to steer the tugboat up and down the river. The wood captain's wheel and an old, gray clunky phone with a silver bell on top of it are still there, as is the dark wood paneling on the lower half. There is also an array, on a panel in front of the captain's wheel, of radios, levers, switches, gauges, and controls to drive the tugboat.

The top half, into the ceiling, is all windows so Petey could see in all directions. The roof windows make it excellent for stargazing.

I had a three-foot-wide bench built up in the wheelhouse, raised over four feet. I added a long red mattress and a pile of red and white pillows with fabric from India, Thailand, Norway, Pakistan, Mexico, China, and Hawaii.

I can sit on the bench in the wheelhouse and have an incredible view of downtown Portland if I look one way and the ruffles of the river and towering trees if I look the other way. Sometimes I go up there to cry.

Outside I have another "house," built on my side deck. It's not a real house. More like a shelter with a door. I don't go in there. It hurts me too much. When I moved in, I shoved in what needed to be there, then shut and locked the door.

Locked. It's locked.

I can't see unlocking it anytime soon.


Excerpted from The Language of Sisters by CATHY LAMB. Copyright © 2016 Cathy Lamb. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Language of Sisters 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love a good story
jbarr5 More than 1 year ago
The Language of Sisters by Cathy Lamb Like the story line enough to want to read this but it's over 450 pages long. Russian parents come to the US with their three daughters and they open a restaurant. What I like about this is although it's about a Russian family it could easily be a Portuguese one(my nationality) as there is much that upsets the mother. Oregon, what a lovely area. One daughter wants to marry an Italian and that sets off her creating new dishes for the restaurant because she is that upset. Antonio is asked to fix all the problems-she's a reporter/writer. Love the understanding of the language between the sisters as it's a family trait. You know when another is hurting or happy. At times I am lost as to what era we are in as the book goes back to Russia, then to present then back to when they first arrived. So when Toni writes a resignation letter I'm not sure where we are as she goes to work for the next week. Hot romances and work situations. Kind of funny that one sister is a lawyer and is charge of bringing those to justice and her teaches the twins about self defense and they bring it to class for show and tell and the teacher gets upset when she explains how to get out of trunk of a car if kidnapped. It is useful information... Lots of drama and action from them all. Chapters go back in time so we can understand what happened in Russia before they came to the US. You wonder what will become of the wedding that is being planned as everybody is fighting over everything. So many secrets. X ending didn't see it ending like this. X read but just took too long. I received this review copy from The Kensington Books and this is my honest review
Cynthia181 More than 1 year ago
I received this book from the author for an honest review. It is a wonderful story of sisters, family, starting new and all the family secrets we keep. You have three sister who came to the US with their parents and brother after following the rest of the family to get out of Russia because they were Christians. The closeness of the sister is so that when each need to they can talk to each other through their thoughts and not have to call which in the end helps one of the sisters from getting hurt, but it shows the closeness of families and the struggles that they had before and after coming to the states and making better lives for themselves. I would recommend this book for anyone who is looking for a wonderful read.
GinnaL More than 1 year ago