Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
This is not a new book, but I finished it yesterday afternoon and I'm still thinking about it today.
I was browsing at the library the other day, and ran across a book named Eligible by the same author, which is supposed to be a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, one of my all time faves. But I hesitate to read re-tellings of actual books sometimes - I think I've mentioned that I like re-tellings/re-imaginings of fairy tails, though I'm not sure why it's different - because what if it ruins the original? So I saw that the author (I was assuming it was a "he" at that point - oops) had a few other books, and I took to the shelves. Once there, I realized that a) she's a she, and b) I had read her American Wife many years ago when it was first published, and I remembered liking it. After reading a few dust jackets, I decided that Sisterland looked to be the most intriguing.
Violet and Daisy are identical twins growing up in St. Louis in the 80's - I think we find out at some point that they'd fall in about 3 years younger than I am - which was a pull in the first place, since St. Louis is one of my favorite places. Their home life isn't awful, but it's not ideal, either - they conspire to help their very unnaffectionate (though not abusive) mother hide her depression from their somewhat cold father. They aren't well-off, but they're not poor. Vi and Daisy are very insular - the book is narrated in first-person by Daisy, and she mentions that she wouldn't have thought of Vi as her best friend, necesssarily, just that they didn't have or even want anyone else.
The most unusual thing is that Vi and Daisy both seem to have a form of ESP. Daisy dreams of tragedies before they happen. We don't know much about Vi's abilities as they are growing up, but at one point, Daisy is befriended by the cool girl clique and opens herself up to using a Ouija board. She senses a "dark presence" that does help her know things. Being teenage girls, they mostly find out about the ringleader's love life, but she also has some darker knowledge. Being teenage girls, they have a falling out, and Daisy's social life is somewhat ruined as they are outed as "witches." Daisy, however, tries her best and eventually is mostly treated as "normal" and really downplays her "senses", while Vi embraces the weird and notoriety.
Daisy can't wait to get out of St. Louis. When the time comes, she goes to Mizzou and Vi heads to the west coast to a small private college.Vi isn't gone long, though, before she drops out/becomes too socially awkward/fails? and crashes Daisy's life (who is now going by her middle name, Kate) . They have a fairly major falling out, and the rest of the story often deals with their contentious relationship, along with Kate's marital life.
The story is told jumping around from the "now" - the fall of 2009- to childhood, to college, often as a backstory to something going on in the present. That part is handled well - the timeline and pacing didn't suffer by being too chopped up.
The storyline - though the book is truly a novel about relationships more than anything else - is that Vi, now making her rather meager living as a psychic, has predicted a major earthquake, and the story is picked up by the national (then international) media. Kate, despite trying to disregard and even destroy her senses, also gets a feeling about a particular date. Kate is married to a professor, a scientist who has always said he believed her about her premonitions, but doesn't really REALLY believe. Kate is exasperated by Vi's willingness to share the "weird" and concerned for Jeremy's career when her husband's closest colleague is tapped to be the "anti-Vi" on TV - made worse by the fact that she lives a half a block away, and their families are absolute best friends.
Will the earthquake happen? Will her husband believe her or drive her to a stubborn impasse? Will Vi embarrass the heck out of Kate and ruin Jeremy's career?
But again, this is really just a novel about relationships. How can two people who truly were once one egg want such opposite things? Kate's relationship with her husband is tested and explored. Her relationship with her parents is examined. As a mother of two young children, she worries about what her children will think of her, given what she thinks of her own parents, and Vi's rather sour outlook on her perfect suburban life does ring a bell or two for her, even as she's usually happy.
For me, the book was very well written. I liked Kate as a character and understood why she took a lot of her actions, even as I disagreed strongly with several of her decisions. Disagreeing with her made me feel almost guilty about liking her, but then, that can happen in life, too. Most other characters were well developed - I didn't get a great sense of the wife of the other couple and her motivations - but mostly you got enough to be invested and to care. The pacing was good and kept me interested.
I read some reviews last night, and if you're expecting a book purely about psychic twins, this won't satisfy you. If you're looking for a thriller about earthquakes, also not the right book. But if you enjoy books that explore human relationships, this was a good one. The line that keeps resonating with me today is one where Kate thinks "how shocking it still is to realize that someone else doesn't want what you want, or wants what you desperately don't." It just reminds me that, no matter what we have in common or how well we know a person, we don't all think or dream the same, and a step back to see another perspective might not be all bad.