Wednesday, July 17, 2013


by Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, 2013
397 pages     Fiction

Is it hard to enjoy a family novel when life at your house is chaos?  Or is it easier to love a family novel when everything is peaceful at your house? That is the question I asked myself as I was plowing through Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. It is  a very well-written novel, but I wasn’t enjoying myself. Probably I should have put the book down and started it again when things calmed down in my life. It is to the author’s credit that I finished the book, as hung up as I was on our own family dramas. For you see, we have a wedding in three weeks and I am in Chicago taking care of a grandchild instead of at home doing little bits and pieces for the wedding. However, it’s not much better at home; there’s a guy there refinishing the living room floor and another guy painting the house trim. No matter where I turn, it’s chaos. 

So before I go on and on about my own drama, let’s talk about Kate and Vi, the twins who are the protagonists in Sisterland. They are the product of a depressed mother and a distant but loving father and spend most of their lives in St. Louis. Like most twins, they are inseparable as children and raise themselves because their mother has a hard time getting out of bed. Kate, who was born Daisy, and Vi realize early in their lives that they are psychics…they have premonitions about things, and see things that other people don’t see. Kate marries conventionally, and Vi tries out all sorts of things before she becomes a professional psychic. “All hell” breaks loose in both of their lives when Vi predicts a devastating earthquake for St. Louis on national television. Although Vi becomes a celebrity following her appearance on the Today show, Kate’s life is affected the most, and she makes some rather unseemly decisions that are as much an earthquake in her life as the earthquake her sister has predicted.

The story moves back and forth between the past and present. In other novels that aren’t linear, it sometimes is difficult to figure out the past from the present. Sittenfeld makes effortless transitions. We know exactly which time frame we are in, which I appreciated. The characters are all complex; but some of them are difficult to like, although Sittenfeld says that it is not her job to create likeable characters. The New York Times reviewer says, “Kate and Violet may look alike, especially as children, but it’s the artful rendering of each one’s idiosyncrasies that makes this novel so affecting. In this, as in her other books — “Prep,” “The Man of My Dreams” and “American Wife” — Sittenfeld’s confident, no-frills style belies the complexities of her characters and their relationships. Her protagonists tend to be shrewdly observant outliers, neither Queen Bees nor Wannabes; they seem relatable, and they make us feel complicit.” Of course in a family drama, it is the choices that family members make that drives the plot. Sometimes, in Sisterland, the reader is shaking her head wondering why this or that particular decision was made. Frankly, the spouses of Vi and Kate are the real heroes of the novel; they love these women despite the implausible decisions they make. In the end Vi is a much more enjoyable character than Kate, and we can’t help questioning  the decisions Kate makes, psychic or not. 

One of the most intriguing parts of the story is the twin’s psychic abilities. The NPR reviewer suggests that “Sittenfeld handles Kate's contact with the psychic realm with a light and logical touch that keeps Sisterland artfully within the bounds of believability.” In other words, Sittenfeld doesn’t overplay her hand with this as a plot device, although a couple of the reviewers felt that she could have done more with it. Vi embraces her gift while Kate is embarrassed by it and tends to push her premonitions into the background. This becomes a key plot device, because when Vi is predicting an earthquake, Kate knows that she is right, but Kate is embarrassed by the very idea that she knows it. In an interview in the Chicago Tribune, Sittenfeld talks about interviewing some St. Louis psychics as she was researching the novel. Interestingly enough, she didn’t probe them about their psychic abilities as much as she discussed with them the way in which they operated their lives and their businesses.  This is apparent in the book because Sittenfeld doesn’t go too deep into the inner workings of either of the twin’s minds.

I have twin granddaughters, who are twelve, and every time I read a twin novel (which has happened several times in the last four years), I look at my beautiful granddaughters and wonder what the future holds for them. If you enjoy Sisterland, you might also enjoy The Orphan Sister by Gwendolen Gross or I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass. I have to say that I liked I See You Everywhere more.

Sisterland is a very intriguing novel.
It appeared on many lists of best books for summer and it is well worth reading. Just read it on the beach or somewhere peaceful where your own family dramas aren’t playing out. The publicist who sent me the advanced copy also sent copies to my sisters, which was much appreciated. We will talk about it on the beach later this summer.

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