As producer of Artsline, 88.9 WCVE’s arts and cultural calendar, I receive many books from big and small publishing houses. It is a nifty job perk but about half of the books fit into my Women in Peril category; dark-jacketed, lengthy tomes about women falling for languorous vampires, zombies and others of the hip undead. Sisterland’s cover, featuring pretty but unsmiling twin girls with Children of the Corn stares is slightly creepy but intriguing. Still suspicious of the book’s subject matter but drawn by the story in those eyes, I read Sisterland, a book that is not really about otherworldly spirits. Rather, it is a story about how human attitudes, impulses and actions precipitate the shifting, rearranging and settling of relationships.
Kate and Violet (Vi) are identical 34 year-old twins living in St. Louis. Kate, the book’s narrator, is a suburban wife to Jeremy, a professor, and doting stay-at-home mother to their two young children, toddler Rosie and Owen, an infant. Her life is conventional and stable but her anxiety and control issues dominate her personality. At lunch with Vi in the book’s first chapter, Kate admonishes Vi about it being “easier” not to be gay, how being gay complicates having children, and how to properly tip their waitperson.
While Kate is described as predictably bland with a need for control, Ms. Sittenfeld gives bi-sexual, New Agey, college drop-out Vi a blunt, often hilarious baiting attitude and potty mouth that conveys sharp-tongued yet sensible reproofs that counter Kate’s unwarranted sense of responsibility for adults in her life and her stereotypical thinking.
Though the sisters are a Janus mask of dissimilarity, they share memories of a lonely adolescence due in part, to their depressive, emotionally distant deceased mother and the perceived weirdness of their psychic abilities, evident since early childhood. Kate has tried to suppress her psychic ability and is embarrassed by Vi’s profession as a working psychic. After a minor St. Louis earthquake, Vi’s television prediction of another St. Louis earthquake starts the disruptive public and private events around which the characters’ actions play out in late 2009.
Sisterland is a well-written novel told in clearly defined alternating chapters of the sisters’ previous history and present lives, a device some authors do not do well but at which Sittenfeld excels by placing events in the context of the girls’ age and life events. The possibility of the earthquake is exciting and the book’s engrossing story progression and character evolution are the best aspects of Sisterland. The sisters’ spot-on characterizations of flawed but likable Vi and busybody Kate keep the sisters’ friction believable and often funny. Kate’s husband Jeremy is rendered as kind, rational and supportive of everyone, sometimes to his detriment as events proceed. Lesser characters Courtney and Hank are an interracial married couple who are neighbors and friends of Kate and Jeremy. Sittenfeld deliciously describes Courtney as a waspish, over-achieving science professor who lacks sympathy or self-awareness. Her stay-at-home husband Hank is alluringly portrayed as fit and handsome, artsy, easygoing with the couple’s daughter and possessing a nurturing side most women crave.
While Sisterland is a good read, it has some weaknesses. Kate’s daughter Rosie comes off as a miniature Bob Dole in OshKosh by repeatedly referring to herself in the third person, a peculiarity that is cute once but then becomes a Toddlers and Tiaras affectation. Likewise, Kate’s constant concern about her and Vi being perceived as nutters because of Vi’s prediction gets old, too. Vi as a co-narrator would have offered a funny, contrasting point of view of the characters’ relationships and the frenzy over the possible earthquake. The book’s biggest weakness is a major plot twist in the last quarter that I found needless and unexpected despite some foreshadowing far earlier in the story.
Despite its flaws, Sisterland raises questions about a person’s responsibilities to herself and to others. It is also a commentary on how a seemingly controlled life, like an earthquake, can be the most capricious thing in the world.