Only sisters could truly know what made book a success story

March 10, 1995|By Newsday

The book called "Sisters" delivers soulful photographs and spirited writing, but pictures and words alone may not explain the best seller's success.

"It touched a chord in women," says Sharon Wohlmuth, a Philadelphia Inquirer photographer who teamed with magazine journalist Carol Saline to explore the essence of sisterhood.

"Sisters" was the sleeper of the Christmas season and recently hit No. 2 on the New York Times list of non-fiction best sellers. Soon the publisher, Running Press, will have 315,000 copies in print.

Sisters bought for sisters -- sometimes exchanging the same gift -- and dads and moms for daughters. Some sisters pasted family pictures on blank leaves in back of the book and wrote their own essays. One woman sent the book to a half-sister she hadn't seen in 16 years with the wish: "I hope you see the tear stains."

In sessions with 36 sets of sisters, Ms. Saline and Ms. Wohlmuth found women passionate on the subject of togetherness -- or its absence. "When women are given the opportunity to talk about sisters, the floodgates open," Ms. Saline said.

The tandem focused on nobodies and notables -- Coretta Scott King and her sister, Edythe, make an appearance, and so do the singing Mandrells, and the model Christy Turlington and her siblings, among others -- and learned that fame doesn't mean much when it comes to sister stuff.

"There were two surprises in doing the book," says Ms. Saline. "One was the universality of what a sister means. And I didn't realize the sense of pain for sisters who didn't get along."

Ms. Wohlmuth, 48, said she recently experienced that distress firsthand. The photographer and her sister, Beth, 40, a nurse in Ohio, had differences that drove them apart. "I felt the pain every day," said Ms. Wohlmuth. The two reconciled, however, and Beth's picture is on the dust jacket -- smiling, head-to-head with sister Sharon.

And a good thing, too, since the notion for the book came from Ms. Wohlmuth, who had been intrigued since childhood with what she calls "the spirit of sisters." Coincidentally, Ms. Saline, 55, whose sister, Patsy, is two years younger, had been thinking along the same lines. One day, Ms. Wohlmuth and Ms. Saline, who are friends, exchanged ideas on joint ventures and suddenly a "Sisters" act was born.

After talking with so many sisters, Ms. Saline and Ms. Wohlmuth say it is the birth-to-death potential of the partnership that makes for the ethereal link between sisters. Ms. Wohlmuth says she often can identify women as sisters just by their body language. "There is a certain intimacy," she says.

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