Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sisterland, In Which Psychic Twins Still Manage to Have Screwed Up Lives

People have always been fascinated by identical twins.  Twin studies have shown that often they have a
deeper connection than normal siblings, developing their own language to communicate and sensing when something is wrong with the other.  It is this idea that Curtis Sittenfeld explores in Sisterland, his 2013 novel about two identical twins who end up taking very different paths.

Kate (born Daisy) and her sister Violet grew up in a small town near St. Louis, Missouri.  They knew from an early age that they had abilities that they could not explain, what they called senses.  Their "senses" gave them feelings about things that were going to happen in the future, things that it would be impossible to know. Raised by a mostly absent father and a mother with untreated clinical depression, there was no one that the girls could turn to when it came to understanding the power they possessed.   After a sleep over with some friends during which Kate felt a malevolent presence in the room, she actively tried to ignore and quash her senses.  This became especially true after she married and became a mother. She wanted nothing more than to be normal.  Her sister Vi, on the other hand, turned her senses into a career, which began after Kate and Vi helped find a kidnapped boy while in college.  Vi is a handful-loud, brash, crass, and pushy, she requires almost as much attention from Kate as her own children, or her aging father.  When Vi predicts a major earthquake would hit the St. Louis area, the story is picked up by the major networks, and her life becomes a series of interviews and psychic readings, embarrassing her sister Kate and driving the whole family into virtual hiding from reporters.

Sittenfeld does a wonderful job with the backstory of the sisters, which he tells by alternating between present day and past.  Kate is a fully developed character, though to be honest I didn't find her a particularly likable one.  I found her suburban attitudes about her gifts, her sister's choices, and her family history to be sort of obnoxious, in fact.  Sittenfeld did not do quite as well with some of the other characters-Kate's husband, for instance, is a little too good to be true-but I thought he captured the Midwestern sensibilities of a small city pretty well.  Overall I found the story engaging, and was drawn in enough to ignore my chores for the day and keep reading (though, in truth, this is not exactly hard to do).  In the end, though, I felt like this novel, as engaging as it was, failed to deliver anything truly unique.  For an earthquake does come, thought not in the literal ground shaking sense.  Kate's life ends up being rocked by her own very questionable choices, and while there is a certain symmetry to her getting her comeuppance after all of the years she judged her sister and others, this particular earthquake was entirely preventable.

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