Thursday, August 25, 2016

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Our windows were open, and the radio had been playing continuously--not one but two Billy Joel songs had come on during our drive--and the air was dense with the humidity of a midwestern summer, weather that even then made me homesick, though it was hard to say for what. Maybe my homesickness was a form of prescience because when I look back, it's the circumstances of this very car ride that I recognize as irretrievable: the experience of driving nowhere in particular with my sister, both of seventeen years old, the open windows causing our hair to blow wildly; that feeling of being unencumbered; that confidence that our futures would unfold the way we wanted them to and our real lives were just beginning.

Sisterhood is hard to write about in a way that doesn't seem trite, and while Sittenfeld's Sisterhood isn't trite, it doesn't quite work. Vi and Kate are identical twins who grow up with a depressed, reclusive mother (whose fibromyalgia is probably the most convincingly described aspect of the book), and a somewhat oblivious father. The scenes from their childhood are touching and sad; my favorite/least favorite vignette is when they take on cooking dinner for the family as elementary schoolers. Their mother doesn't emerge from her room in time to start dinner, so they do it for her, and when the family sits down to eat, they all act as though their mother has prepared the meal. Somehow this becomes the norm and continues until they leave for college. There are a lot of these quietly isolating moments which initially bring the twins closer together, but eventually cause them to drift apart.

The central tension of the book, however, is that the twins have what they call "senses"--visions of the future. Kate actively rejects her powers in college after they mark her as too different to be cool in high school, and Vi embraces hers, becoming a psychic. At the start of the book, after an unusual earthquake strikes the St Louis area, Vi becomes famous when she claims on television that another earthquake--a big one--is coming. The description of their adult lives and their adult relationship with each other unfolds from this revelation; Kate struggles to decide how much faith to have in her sister's prediction while navigating her life as a suburban housewife (an identity she seems to have taken on because it is as "normal" as possible and as different from her sister as imaginable).

The book switches between the twins in high school and college and the twins today, focusing mostly on Kate. The descriptions of them as teenagers and young adults were much more compelling than the ones that follow them into adulthood. The characteristics that made them interesting high schoolers make them pretty boring adults, and Kate, who is supposed to be sympathetic, comes off as even more self involved and self absorbed than her sister (who comes off as very self involved). Beyond the issues of their "senses" (which I found annoying at best), their relationship was one dimensional and not nearly as interesting as it could be. Some of the other relationships in the book are a little bit more interesting, but I vaguely disliked almost all the characters which made it hard to care.

Overall, I was unimpressed by this one. There is some drama towards the end that kept me reading, but overall the story wasn't great and the characters were unimpressive.

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