Book Review: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House; 416 pages; $27).
Twins and their cognitive abilities have fascinated people for decades. Real-life psychic sisters Terry and Linda Jamison call their unique talent to predict the future “twin tuition.” The Jamison sisters, the “psychic twins,” have at present 9,082 Twitter followers and fully embrace the gift they believe they were given. Many twins in fact share some sort of extrasensory capability. Not all are as happy about it as the Jamison twins, though. Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep, The Man of My Dreams, and American Wife, mines the differences between two psychic sisters in her newest novel Sisterland.
Kate and Vi may be identical twins but they are as different as any two people can be. While Vi welcomes her clairvoyance and makes a living from her telepathy, Kate has run as far as she possibly could from it, even changing the name she was born with (Daisy) to further distinguish herself from her sister and from her past. Now married with two children, Kate has shut down her psychic gifts and is glad they no longer cloud her vision.
Sittenfeld tells her story solely from Kate’s perspective. Clearly, Sittenfeld wants us to sympathize and emphasize with Kate. To do this, the author gives us sometimes hilarious and often poignant flashbacks of the twins’ childhood and adolescence. Sittenfeld’s attempts backfired on me. I loved the windows into their early lives but found myself wanting Vi’s point of view and never getting it.
Kate can no longer run from her past when her sister has a premonition that a major earthquake will strike Saint Louis. Initially, Kate is horrified; her embarrassment magnifies when national news networks hop on the story. But Kate is even more astonished to find herself in agreement with Vi. She, too, senses that seismic activity is imminent and also knows when the earth shaking will occur—October 16.
Sisterland is set in Saint Louis, Missouri, part of the New Madrid fault and no stranger to shifting tectonic plates. From December 1811 to March 1812, thousands of tremors rocked the central Mississippi Valley and were felt as far away as Boston and Montreal. The quake caused the Mississippi River to run backward for a time, such was the awesome power of the quiver. Though these earthquakes were the biggest in American history, many scoff at Vi’s prediction and say such a disaster is unlikely.
There is no question that Sittenfeld leads you to believe an event of great magnitude will occur. You expect something momentous and earth-shaking. What eventually happens is significantly lesser than. A seismic shift does occur, but it only happens to Kate, her husband, and her children. On Kate’s inner Richter scale, I’m sure it measures 10.0, but I barely felt it. It’s a big letdown.
The ending of Sisterland feels anti-climactic and melodramatic. The conclusion felt wrong and very odd to this reader because it does not match up with the rest of the story nor does it fit with the characters. The familial shake-up comes out of left field. Sittenfeld seems to be saying men and women cannot be “just” friends.
There is a reason why Kate felt that October 16 was the date for the earthquake. Her portent was only meant for her and hers; it was not a sign for all. Sisterland led me to expect a huge trembler but substituted in its place a tremor within a family unit. It just doesn’t work. The end reads like a soap opera and not good fiction.
Early on, Sisterland is gripping, but promise cannot save this story. There are shining beacons among the ruins: Sittenfield instills realism and humanity into her flawed characters, making them all true-to-life and fascinating, and emphasizes the deep cracks in familial and marital bonds. Overall, Sisterland is just too overwrought with plot. If you are eager to read a book by Sittenfeld, skip Sisterland and pick up Prep instead, still her strongest work of fiction to date and a true joy to read.