(Audio)Book Talk: SISTERLAND, by Curtis Sittenfeld

SISTERLAND by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland: A Novel
Curtis Sittenfeld
Audiobook read by Rebecca Lowman
Random House (June 2013), Hardcover (ISBN 1400068312 / 9781400068319)
Fiction, 416 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Random House Audio, 2013; ISBN 9780307736611)
Reason for reading: Personal (audio recommended by Beth Fish Reads)

Opening lines:

“The shaking started around three in the morning, and it happened that I was already awake because I’d nursed Owen at two and then, instead of going back to sleep, I’d lain there brooding about the fight I’d had at lunch with my sister, Vi. I’d driven with Owen and Rosie in the backseat to pick up Vi, and the four of us had gone to Hacienda. We’d finished eating and I was collecting Rosie’s stray food from the tabletop—once I had imagined I wouldn’t be the kind of mother who ordered chicken tenders for her child off the menu at a Mexican restaurant—when Vi said, ‘So I have a date tomorrow.’

“‘That’s great,’ I said. ‘Who is it?’

“Casually, after running the tip of her tongue over her top teeth to check for food, Vi said, ‘She’s an IT consultant, which sounds boring, but she’s traveled a lot in South and Central America, so she couldn’t be a total snooze, right?’

“I was being baited, but I tried to match Vi’s casual tone as I said, ‘Did you meet online?’ Rosie, who was two and a half, had gotten up from the table, wandered over to a ficus plant in the corner, and was smelling the leaves. Beside me in the booth, buckled into his car seat, Owen, who was six months, grabbed at a little plush giraffe that hung from the car seat’s handle.

“Vi nodded. ‘There’s pretty slim pickings for dykes in St. Louis.’

“‘So that’s what you consider yourself these days?’ I leaned in and said in a lowered tone.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website
From an early age, Kate and her identical twin sister, Violet, knew that they were unlike everyone else. Kate and Vi were born with peculiar “senses”—innate psychic abilities concerning future events and other people’s secrets. Though Vi embraced her visions, Kate did her best to hide them.

Now, years later, their different paths have led them both back to their hometown of St. Louis. Vi has pursued an eccentric career as a psychic medium, while Kate, a devoted wife and mother, has settled down in the suburbs to raise her two young children. But when a minor earthquake hits in the middle of the night, the normal life Kate has always wished for begins to shift. After Vi goes on television to share a premonition that another, more devastating earthquake will soon hit the St. Louis area, Kate is mortified. Equally troubling, however, is her fear that Vi may be right. As the date of the predicted earthquake quickly approaches, Kate is forced to reconcile her fraught relationship with her sister and to face truths about herself she’s long tried to deny. 

Comments: “Sisterland: Population 2” read the sign on the door of the bedroom occupied by the Shramm twins, Violet and Daisy, in suburban St. Louis. The unique bond between twins is well documented, but these two are further connected by both the complications of their home life–an older father, an emotionally distant mother–and the unusual talent they share. Both twins have psychic abilities, which they call “senses”…but as they get older, it doesn’t require special perception to see that this “gift” isn’t easy to live with, particularly for Daisy–when she leaves for college, she’d like to leave that part of herself behind too, which extends to dropping her first name and calling herself by her middle one, Kate. But “losing” her senses doesn’t prove easy for Kate, especially when Vi takes the opposite path with her own.

The “psychic twins” angle is a great hook into Curtis Sittenfeld’s fourth novel, Sisterland–but it’s a hook that might lead readers to expect something very different from what the novel turns out to be. The central plot thread–one of the psychic twins has predicted an earthquake for their hometown of St. Louis on October 16, 2009–adds tension and suspense, but while the storyline takes some surprising twists and turns, this isn’t a thriller, either. Therefore, I think a reader coming to Sisterland expecting paranormal activity–or seismic activity, for that matter–might well be disappointed. What that reader will find is a novel about two sisters…and their father, and the husband and children of one, friends of them both, and how life fractures and reshapes itself in ways not unlike what earthquakes due to the landscape.

I had a few quibbles with Sisterland, and I’ll get them out of the way first. Although I was pretty thoroughly sucked into the novel, I felt at times that Sittenfeld may have been trying to tackle too many relationships and almost too much story–the last quarter of the book veers into unexpected, and not entirely welcome, territory. Given its title, you might reasonably expect the story between the sisters to be at the center of Sisterland, but at times it seems to take a back seat to Kate’s marriage and children. That leads me to my other quibble: this is a novel that might have been well-served by dual narrators. We only see Sisterland from Kate’s point of view, and I think the novel could have been enriched if at least a few chapters gave Vi the chance to speak for herself.

However, with all that said, those are indeed quibbles. They’re far outweighed by the humanity and emotional honesty of Sittenfeld’s story and its telling, which is enhanced by a strong sense of place–St. Louis is more secondary character than setting for Sisterland. And while I didn’t always like the novel’s primary characters, their story more than held my interest, and it thoroughly wrenched my emotions. The effectiveness of Sittenfeld’s writing was reinforced by Rebecca Lowman’s reading. This is my second audiobook with Lowman, and I was as impressed with her narration here as I was with it on Rules of Civility last year. I’m still new enough to audiobooks that I don’t really have a list of “go-to” narrators yet, but if I did, I think I’d give Lowman a spot on it based on my experience with her so far. And based on both the writing and the audio performance, I think I may be giving Sisterland a spot on my Books of the Year list…so far.

Rating: Book and audio, 4 of 5 
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