Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: SISTERLAND, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Published 2013 by Random House. Literary fiction.

Curtis Sittenfeld's last two books haven't been white-hot page turners but what she does really well is chronicle contemporary American life in a detailed and thoughtful manner. In 2008's American Wife, she gave us a rich autobiographical fiction about a First Lady modeled on Laura Bush. Her character was intelligent, tough and independent and deeply committed to her marriage and her role within it, that of the stabilizing influence behind a mercurial and spoiled man-child. I read the book as a meditation on the ways that women compromise to meet the needs of self and family. Her latest book, Sisterland, is another meditation on the American family but this time it's more deeply concerned with motherhood and self.

Sisterland tells the story of Daisy and Violet Schramm, twin sisters with psychic abilities to "sense" things- events, feelings, what's about to happen. As the book opens, professional psychic Violet, the more flamboyant of the two, is making headlines with her prediction of a massive earthquake about to hit St. Louis, where both women live. Violet is a wide-hipped, loose-skirted tidal wave of a woman; her sister, who's changed her name to Kate, is a suburban wife and mom to two young kids who just wants to keep her head down and not make waves. She has a perfect sensitive husband named Jeremy, and she focuses most of her energy on baby Owen and toddler Rosie. Indeed the book is positively awash in the everyday details of motherhood, which Kate/Daisy seems to want to consume her.

But here's the thing. There a couple of twists coming. There's revelation about who was responsible for a news-making psychic message that made Violet's reputation years ago- and a big one about the true nature of this earthquake. The book takes a big left turn about 3/4 of the way through, changing the game and reinforcing the idea that Kate is a woman in deep denial about herself and her nature. Some readers have taken issue with this turn, but I think if you look at the story as a whole her transformation isn't really a transformation at all. Kate has never been what she wants so desperately to be seen as. She has been hiding from herself for years, from changing her name (Daisy Schramm becomes Kate Tucker- a different person entirely) to subsuming herself in motherhood, to denying her abilities, to her repulsion (envy?) towards her sister's larger-than-life personality, not to mention her large body. Vi breaks the rules that Kate keeps, at least until she doesn't. Is it really a surprise that she'd finally rebel with an impulsive act of pure desire?

Sisterland is a slow read though the suspense around the earthquake may be enough to keep the pages moving. I know from past experience to have faith in Sittenfeld's storytelling so I was not deterred by either the length of the book or the issues around pacing. Like American Wife, Sisterland is character-driven above all so if you enjoy literary fiction that delves deeply into the minds of its characters while not always offering exactly what you would have predicted, I do recommend Sisterland.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Random House.