Book Talk: *The Weird Sisters,* by Eleanor Brown

The Weird Sisters
Eleanor Brown
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam (2011), hardcover (ISBN 0399157220 / 9780399157226)
Fiction, 336 pages
Source: purchased e-book (Kindle) (ASIN B00475AXHY)
Reason for reading: personal

Opening Lines: “We came home because we were failures. We wouldn’t admit that, of course, not at first, not to ourselves, and certainly not to anyone else. We said we came home because our mother was ill, because we needed a break, a momentary pause before setting out for the Next Big Thing. But the truth was, we had failed, and rather than let anyone know, we crafted careful excuses and alibis, and wrapped them around ourselves like a cloak to keep out the cold hard truth.”

Book description: The Andreas family is one of readers. Their father, a renowned Shakespeare professor who speaks almost entirely in verse, has named his three daughters after famous Shakespearean women. When the sisters return to their childhood home, ostensibly to care for their ailing mother, but really to lick their wounds and bury their secrets, they are horrified to find the others there. See, we love each other. We just don’t happen to like each other very much. But the sisters soon discover that everything they’ve been running from-one another, their small hometown, and themselves-might offer more than they ever expected.

Comments: Do you recall, almost two months ago, when I asked this question:

“Do you ever read multiple reviews of A Book Everyone Loves just hoping to find ONE that says ‘meh’?”

It was inspired by this book. Since asking it, I have seen a couple of less-than-enthused responses to it, but for the most part, it continues to be A Book Everyone Loves.

Having spent a good chunk of my adult life as an appendage to academia (grad-student spouse in a college town, then wife of a faculty member at a small college in a mid-sized city), I still tend to be drawn to fiction set in that world. The three Andreas sisters grew up as daughters of a Shakespeare scholar at a small midwestern college, and were shaped by both those factors. Each was named for a character in a Shakespeare play, and essentially speaks Shakespeare as a second language – it’s the method by which their father is most comfortable communicating; and each attended Barnwell College. But then their paths diverged. Rose, the eldest, became a math professor at a nearby university, a woman of numbers rather than words; her younger sisters, Bianca (Bean) and Cordelia, were more ambitious to get out of Barnwell than anything else.

However, when their mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, each of the sisters already has another reason of her own to come home to help care for her, and to rediscover the town that still has a hold on them all.

Debut novelist Eleanor Brown chooses to narrate The Weird Sisters (a Macbeth reference – also a band of magical musicians mentioned in the Harry Potter books) in the unusual first-person plural, giving the sisters a collective voice even as she relates the individual threads of their story. I always find that interesting, and I really liked the way she used it here, particularly when she employed it to make wry comments about one sister’s behavior or thoughts as if they were observed by the others. Given the fact that the sisters really do have issues with one another – as in many families, they wouldn’t choose to associate with each other if they weren’t related to each other – I thought that it provided an interesting counterpoint to have them speak as one.

I thought the novel’s strengths were in the writing and in Brown’s portrayal of the mix of friction and fondness in the sisters’ relationships with each other. The liberal use of quotes from Shakespeare throughout the narrative and characters’ conversations adds a highbrow element, but not an off-putting one – given the novel’s framework, it fits. I didn’t find the sisters themselves quite so compelling, though; I appreciate that Brown didn’t try too hard to make them endearing, but sometimes it felt like she went too far in the opposite direction from that, which I think really works best in satire – and this novel is much more earnest than satirical. The story itself covers pretty familiar ground; Brown’s approach to it is unique, but I didn’t feel she was really saying anything new.

I liked The Weird Sisters, especially as a first novel, and I’ll be interested in seeing the progress of Eleanor Brown’s writing career. However, I honestly wanted to be part of the Everyone Who Loves This Book when I finished it…and I can’t honestly say I am. I may like it more in retrospect, or even grow to love it, but now, I just Liked This Book.

Rating: 3.5/5

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