July 2013

Questioning family and reality

By Curtis Sittenfeld
Review by
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Curtis Sittenfeld is best known for Prep, her pitch-perfect novel of high school angst, but she is no one-trick pony. She explored questions of love in The Man of My Dreams and gave Laura Bush a fascinating fictionalized life in American Wife. With Sisterland, Sittenfeld introduces us to twin sisters Kate and Violet, bound by a complicated childhood, conflicted friendship and—most importantly—psychic abilities.

Kate and Vi discovered that they had “senses” at an early age, but while Vi embraced and nurtured her premonitions, Kate repressed them. Kate wanted love, marriage and a conventional life, while Vi was always happy to live more on the fringes. When we meet them in their 30s, Kate has the family she always wanted, complete with devoted husband Jeremy and adorable young children Rosie and Owen. Vi is working as a psychic medium and gains international attention when she predicts that a massive earthquake will soon devastate their hometown of St. Louis. It sounds like a strange premise—and it is—but Sittenfeld’s writing is so nuanced, true-to-life and readable, it almost doesn’t matter what she’s writing about.

Kate is our not-quite-reliable narrator, moving back and forth through time to the girls’ childhood with a depressed, reclusive mother and a quiet, passive father; to college, where Kate excels and Violet flounders; and to the present day, where the twins lead vastly different lives, yet are bound by their shared past and visions of the future. As the date of the earthquake approaches, both sisters make decisions that will change their lives forever.

In Sisterland, Sittenfeld plays with our ideas of premonition and intuition and questions the reliability of our perception of current events and memories of the past. Do we see things as they are, or as we want them to be? Do we have control over our lives, or are we destined to follow a certain course? Are things ever as they seem?

The answers, of course, are complicated, and while the plot occasionally dips into melodrama, Sittenfeld never loses control. Sisterland is another Sittenfeld novel to savor, ponder and recommend to friends.

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By Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House
ISBN 9781400068319

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