Elisabeth Robinson knew she would eventually write something about her sister not because of the way she died, but because of the way she lived. She could have written a memoir, but it wouldn't have had a comic outlet. She might have written a screenplay, since she has written several others. Yet, that form felt too confining. Instead, Robinson ended up creating a terrific novel, The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters.
"It's somewhat autobiographical in that my sister went through sort of what happens in the book," Robinson says, explaining that her sister died of leukemia in 1998.
"She always had been the idealistic one, and I was always the sort of crabby, cynical one," Robinson says by phone from her New York apartment. "When she was diagnosed, she didn't change, and I was kind of amazed at that. And after she died, I was even haunted by that. How could she possibly think the world is beautiful when such unfair, terrible things happen?"
How, indeed? And how could Robinson write an entertaining novel about a tragic and untimely death? Yet, Hunt Sisters is by turns a touching and hilarious reading experience. The secret lies in its lead character, Olivia Hunt, Robinson's sassy equivalent who tells the whole story through her letters. A screenwriter and producer recently fired by Universal Pictures, Olivia is working on the fourth draft of her own suicide note when the call comes that her 28-year-old sister back in Shawnee Falls, Ohio, has real trouble leukemia.
"All your life you try to imagine what bad news sounds like," Olivia writes in a letter to her childhood friend, Tina, "but when you actually hear bad news, it simply makes no sense; it's like being told the definition of a black hole by a physicist, directions by a local, the evidence of God by a priest." Hoping for the best, Olivia flies home. There, it becomes her job to prop up her mother and father, and try to make up for all the times she was a less than stellar big sister to Madeleine. Simultaneously, Olivia is trying to rekindle a romance with her ex-boyfriend Michael, and to bring to production a long-dormant film version of Cervantes' Don Quixote. Robinson herself once worked on a Don Quixote film project with Robin Williams, but it never got made. "It's one of the most impossible movies to make," she explains. "It's perfect here because the theme of Don Quixote Does courage require a craziness? Is courage a form of delusion? dovetails with Madeleine's optimism and idealism."
Robinson decided to write the novel in letters after her mother sent her some of the family's real-life correspondence she had found in the attic. The author discovered they had an inherent drama because of what was not there. She liked the form, and readers will, too.
Olivia says what we would like to. To the boyfriend: "I've decided I like writing to you precisely because you don't respond. You're like a dog that way. A great listener. Man's best friend."
To her mom: "Read that folder I put together, particularly the stuff I highlighted. And I implore you to get a prescription for Xanax. Don't be anxious about taking anti-anxiety drugs; you won't become an addict."
To Madeleine: "A man of medicine, a healer, should not do his ICU rounds in black Bruno Magli slip-ons, the kind OJ wore when he sliced off his wife's head."
To a former colleague: "I guess you weren't in film school the day they taught that lesson about being nice to everyone just in case one day you fall from your totally undeserved place of power."
Letters telling off doctors, boyfriends and former colleagues amount to wish-fulfillment for Robinson. A screenwriter with credits on such award-winning films as Braveheart and Last Orders, she worked in Hollywood for years, and her send-up of the entertainment business is dead-on.
Robinson's film career began in New York, where she scouted books to make into movies. But her love of writing started even earlier, when she was growing up in the Detroit suburb where her parents still live. "I wrote my first story when I was eight," she says. "I only know that because the teacher mimeographed it and passed it out. It was about a turkey who hid in the closet because it didn't want to get eaten." Robinson wrote stories all through high school, but lost her nerve when she went to Oberlin, instead deciding to study philosophy and economics. After college, she headed for New York. Her big-haired, friendly sister, on the other hand, never left Michigan, married her hometown boyfriend and seemed on her way to living happily ever after when tragedy struck.
For the fictional retelling of her sister's experience, Robinson originally chose the title A Species of Happiness, taken from this quote by Samuel Johnson: "Hope is itself a species of happiness and perhaps the chief happiness this world affords." Robinson says she compared that quote with this one from her sister's cancer literature: "The prognosis for people with this cancer is dismal."
"I wanted to learn," the author says, "how you can feel hope in the face of something like this."
Robinson admits to being nervous about all the favorable advance publicity her book has received, including blurbs in major magazines. "I was just talking to a friend of mine about the movie Lost in Translation," she says. "I saw it before it got all the publicity, and I liked it. But I wonder how much I could have liked it if I had been told ahead of time, 'You're going to like it.'"
Not a bad problem to have. Madeleine would tell her to quit worrying.
Anne Morris is a writer in Austin, Texas.