'Sisterland' Book Review: Curtis Sittenfeld's Latest Novel Is the Perfect Summer Read
Curtis Sittenfeld’s gift as a writer is the creation of believable, compelling, and all-consuming emotional worlds – no matter how sticky or trite the plot’s premise may seem. In her first novel Prep, she took the oft-used ingredients of a preppy New England boarding school and the confused existence of a high school girl, and created a narrative full of enough detail and emotion to make the story not weary, but jarringly real. Now in her fourth novel, Sisterland, Sittenfeld again submerges readers in circumstances and relationships so vivid that it is easy to excuse the tricks of contrivance and the stray clichés.
The world created in Sisterland is set in a St. Louis suburb and centers on the premise of twin sisters with strange “senses,” revealed to be psychic powers that give them the gift of prescience. The novel’s narrator Kate (born Daisy) works hard to suppress and even undo these abilities, desiring instead to live life as a “normal” housewife and mother to her two young children. Kate’s sister Violet (Vi) opts for the opposite life path, fostering and strengthening her ESP and making a living as a professional psychic. The Sisterland story takes off when Vi gains notoriety after making a televised prediction that an earthquake will hit St. Louis (the first in 200 years) in the near future. Her 15-minutes – and the struggles between the two sisters – really kick into gear when Vi is invited on the TODAY Show to share the prophecy. The predicted date, October 16, hovers over the characters’ lives and the readers’ page with equal ominous gravity.
When reduced to its nuts and bolts the plot wades into the pools of both ridiculousness and unbelievability. But the relationships Sittenfeld creates – particularly the relationship between Kate and Vi – quickly dry those puddles of doubt. While the plot meanders at times, and some flashbacks feel long winded, Sisterland transcends those stumbling blocks to become an enormously satisfying portrait of the nuances of sisterhood, or more specifically, of twin-ness.
The characters’ birth names, Violet and Daisy, are undoubtedly a nod to the famous 20th century Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton. Though Sisterland’s Violet and Daisy are not physically conjoined, Kate’s narration often makes reference to the fact that the two girls began as one person, one egg, and the complexities that brings to their adult relationship. Drawing the characters in sharper relief Kate and Vi become the divergent sides of the classic pop culture "opposite-personality" twins — one of Sittenfeld's most blatant clichés. Where Kate is private and thoughtful, Vi is nearly exhibitionary in her actions; Kate is married to a man, while Vi dates a woman; Kate is responsible and up before the sun, Vi is selfish and often sleeps nearly ‘til sundown; Kate rejects her ESP and Vi prizes it. The dichotomy Sittenfeld builds may be overdone, but the subtle details she brings to their every day interactions create a sisterhood that is palpably real. Sittenfeld guides us through Kate and Vi's shared childhood routines, their changing dynamics in high school, and the crevice of difference that fully opens once they reach college. In their adult selves Sittenfeld walks, and beautifully illustrates, the line of anxiety, irritation, and love so common in relationships with those closest to us.
The other relationship that Sittenfeld layers to the point of artistry is Kate’s experience with the daily ins-and-outs of motherhood, particularly for a stay-at-home mom. Through Kate she documents the complicated choice of spending each day in the presence of toddlers, the craving for adult company which results in a friendship with the stay-at-home dad next door, and the love and safety she feels with her own husband Jeremy. Under Sittenfeld’s watch, motherhood is complicated and honest, depicted with equal parts duty, anxiety, and love.
As the novel rattles toward its October 16th D-Day there are certainly aspects of the book that don’t quite work; there are sections that dawdle and a racially charged plotline that is never explored to its full potential. But it is clear that Sittenfeld writes for her readers, an appreciated choice amid a sea of modern writers who often seem to sacrifice reader experience for the rhythm of their own words.
Sisterland was released on June 25 and is now available for purchase.