Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House Inc, 2013, 397 pp
I like Curtis Sittenfeld's novels. She writes with insight about life as a female, whether teenager, college student, or married woman. She captures the inner, silent monologue of daily existence for characters who are intelligent but have fractures when it come to self-identity. I also harbor a fascination for stories about sisters since I was raised with two of them and we had no brothers. Sisterland satisfied all of this and is about identical twins to boot.
Kate and Violet grew up in a sad, somewhat silent home situated in the conservative Midwestern American city of Saint Louis. Their father spoke little without emotion; their mother spent most of her time in a dark bedroom being depressed. The girls named their room "Sisterland" and relied on each other for most of their needs. When the mother stopped making dinner, the girls taught themselves to cook but made it look as though Mom had made the meal. After dinner, their father would say, "That was delicious, Rita."
But the major trouble was the ability of both sisters to "sense" the future and other people's secrets. During eighth grade, Kate abuses her talent in order to impress the most popular girl at school but the results backfire horribly, driving a wedge between the twins and causing Kate to deny her psychic abilities. Kate grows up, marries "the man of her dreams" and lives the constrained life of a stay-at-home suburban wife and mother of two. Violet's outgoing, contentious personality leads to bisexual relationships and a freelance career as a psychic.
Still, they are twin sisters living in the same town with their sisterly bond and troubled childhoods between them. Though they drive each other nuts, neither one would dream of deserting the other. Disaster threatens when Violet goes on Good Morning America to predict a massive earthquake in Saint Louis, right down to the date. Disaster strikes on the predicted date but the shaking and destruction is personal, not literal.
Sittenfeld is at her most humorous ever in this novel. All of the anguish is buoyed up on a layer of wry observations and ludicrous situations. As Kate relates the story in an anxious, even obsessive voice, the characters provide the laughs. Violet is a constant annoyance, barging in on Kate's ordered life always needing something: a ride, a loan, an outfit to wear, etc.
Rosie, Kate's two and a half-year-old, has the best voice of all. "Where's Rosie's baloney?" (The baloney is a puzzle piece about lunch foods to which she is particularly attached.) "When you take off your diaper it makes Mama very sad." " Rosie wants a banana." Only a brilliant writer of dialogue could let you know what kind of mother Kate is by means of the things Rosie says.
Eventually Kate makes a huge mistake and has to pay in major terms. After having learned about the lives of these twins, after having becomes invested in their conflicted relationship, it feels almost cruel for this organized, dutiful woman to have her life turn out badly. The wonder of Curtis Sittenfeld's writing is the way she lets us know that rarely do we get what we deserve and usually we get what we fear. So OK, that is a bummer but done in such an entertaining and perceptive manner that you feel better about yourself and more tolerant of others. You feel like the author might be your best friend and that she gets you.
(Sisterland is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)