Sunday, March 29, 2015

Book Review: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

13. Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland is Curtis Sittenfeld’s most recent and perhaps most mature novel. The Sittenfeld trademarks, a nonlinear narrative and first-person perspective in hindsight, are present, but more polished than in previous books. This novel also adds new elements to the oeuvre, including a premise that relies on magical realism. I’m not always certain what ‘magical realism’ means (except that I know it when I see it, natch), but here I’m using it to describe something that could be interpreted as either genuinely supernatural, or merely a character’s (in this case, two or more characters) delusion.

The conceit is that the protagonist Kate and her twin sister Violet are psychics. Violet revels in her ‘powers,’ and becomes a psychic medium. Kate denies her visions, struggles to live a normal life, and eventually rids herself of her powers altogether (perhaps). The room that the twins share growing up is labeled “Sisterland” with a physical sign that Violet makes. The population is two, and no one else may enter without permission. The novel hinges largely on an exploration of the relationship between the two sisters, their similarities, and their differences. But this is a bit of a wider canvas than we’ve seen from Sittenfeld before.

While the novel, like all of her others, is still focused, some might say obsessively, on the protagonist, the world widens to encompass more about both sisters, and about Kate’s husband, children, and family friends. Also, the whole city of St. Louis gets involved when Violet predicts a devastating earthquake (come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel set in St. Louis. Why is that?). Again, like all of Sittenfeld’s novels, it’s a book focused on relationships, but whereas earlier novels focus solely on dysfunctional or disconnected relationships, there are some deeper, more complete relationships here that I would not quite qualify as either.

The relationship between Kate and her husband, for example, seems more realistic and perhaps more ‘normal’ than the relationships I remember from earlier Sittenfeld novels. Don’t get me wrong: I bought into the reality of the relationships between Lee and Cross, and between Alice and Charlie. However, there’s an unsustainable, larger-than-life quality to those relationships; they happen, but they don’t represent a stable marriage between two ordinary, middle-class Americans. In this novel, the featured dysfunctional relationship, for much of the book, is between Kate and her sister, and even that is more cordial and forgiving than any relationship I could imagine Lee Fiora having.

Sisterland is a novel that admits that earthquakes happen, but not always in ways we expect. It reminds us that relationships are more flexible and more elastic than we may think, and that reality may be larger than we are willing to believe. These themes, which acknowledge the vagaries of the world, ring more adult to me than Sittenfeld’s previous books, and I look forward to the further development of her canny, nuanced writing.

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