Sisterland unearths themes of twinhood

At the outset of Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld’s newest novel, twin sisters Violet and Kate have an argument over lunch, a typical sibling squabble. Vi—a single, queer psychic—criticizes Kate for a life defined by motherhood: “Children are nothing but a problem people create and then congratulate themselves on solving,” she spurts.

This premise is intriguing on its own—a book about two identical twin sisters who choose different life paths.

A triplet myself, I know all too well the appeal of the idea of multiple selves. For answering questions about being a triplet, I’ve gotten everything from a smile from my small town’s usually stoic DMV worker to an airline ticket upgrade.

One of the most common questions I get is about telepathy: “Can you tell when the other is in pain?”

I usually answer no—when I was in a car accident, my sister did not sense that anything was wrong.

In the world of Sisterland, though, a twin with magical abilities is not such an unearthly concept. Both sisters have “senses,” psychic abilities to perceive future events and other people’s inner secrets. Vi chooses to make a profession of these senses, whereas Kate deliberately chooses to abandon them.

Sisterland was released in late June and is Sittenfeld’s fourth novel. Her previous novels include Prep, the story of a young woman navigating an elite high school, and American Wife, a saga loosely based on the life of Laura Bush.

Sittenfeld is renowned for her relatable female narrators. Although most readers will not claim to have ESP, Kate is an appealing narrator for a great deal of the book’s target audience. She is a mother and wife, and Sittenfeld aptly portrays middle-class domestic life in the present day, filled with tedium, joy and sometimes heartbreak.

The book begins with depictions of two earthquakes in St. Louis: one in 1811, and the other in 2009. It then follows Kate as she waits for a third earthquake —one her sister has sensed is forthcoming.

The book is not only about the present day, though. What makes Sittenfeld’s work interesting is the non-linear narrative: It constantly flips from Kate’s present to her past, using flashbacks that lead to fuller understandings of the characters and their lives.

Although the plot moves forward based on a prediction of a future earthquake, the reader is privy to a smattering of metaphorical earthquakes in Kate’s life that have already passed: a small child becoming sick, a middle schooler being bullied, a mother deciding one day and thereafter never to get out of bed and make dinner. These are moments that shake Kate to the core, and shape her life.

These earthquakes are what make the novel thought-provoking. It’s a page-turner—the Associated Press called it the “Perfect Summer Read” (6.24.13) and The Guardian claimed it to be the “Best Book for a Long Flight” (8.5.13)—but its direct prose does not equate to a simple premise. Sittenfeld’s style of writing helps the reader fully understand and think about issues the book addresses—sexuality, domesticity, generational divides, and the not-so-simple relationships people have with one another.

Also  by narrowing in on twin sisters with identical upbringings and genetics, but inherently different adult lives, Sittenfeld delineates what humans can control about their lives, and what they can’t. Furthermore, she writes in such a way that makes this idea of the arbitrariness of existence interesting to readers of all different backgrounds—like my peers majoring in philosophy, but also members of my mom’s wine-and-cheese book club.

At the end of the novel, the reader is left with a deep knowledge of Kate, Violet, and their families and friends—their secrets, their mistakes, and ultimately, the bonds between them that cannot be shaken, spread out over a landscape of the past, the present and the future.

At the outset of Sisterland, I was skeptical of its otherworldly premise. But in many of Kate’s stories I found parallels between her life and mine, between her life and friends’ lives. Although the ending was surprising and a bit melodramatic, Sisterland is ultimately a novel full of empathy—for both its characters and, in turn, its reader.


—An edition of this review was originally published in Pawling Public Radio on Aug. 24, 2013.

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