REVIEW: "Sisterland," by Curtis Sittenfeld

  • Article by: ELLEN AKINS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 26, 2013 - 1:15 PM

FICTION: Twins take very different approaches to their psychic abilities.

"Sisterland," by Curtis Sittenfeld.

‘This was a situation from a soap opera,” the narrator says at one point in this novel. There’s that — and then there’s the supernatural side of the story, a sort of Stephen King lite, because Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel is concerned with psychic twins. What’s appealing about Stephen King, and what makes this novel so readable as well, is a deep investment in a practical reality whose uncertainties and difficulties are made all the more patent by that other magical and usually frightening world that most of us give up with Santa Claus. To make such a story work, the mundane must be perfect (or as perfect as the mundane can be), utterly convincing. And so it is in “Sisterland.” Sittenfeld has a true gift for the quotidian, for getting the minutiae of everyday exchanges so right that whatever else she throws in gets a pass.

This, without the supernatural, was the brilliance, and the near-irresistible appeal of her last novel, “American Wife,” a thinly (if at all) disguised fictional rendering of the life of Laura Bush, which anyone who’d ever wondered, as I did, how the highly literate and relatively liberal First Lady ended up with a born-again right-wingnut, could not help but find fascinating. The genius of it lay in the credible moment-to-moment, day-to-day unfolding of “regular” life, no matter how irregular the context. And Sittenfeld’s rendering seemed to make sense.

As in that novel, the writing in this one is undistinguished. And yet, that’s a judgment that doesn’t make much sense when the characters are moving and the story’s compelling — and even if you have no faith in psychic powers, you can’t stop reading. That is, Sittenfeld’s gift is so subtle that it’s easy to miss — easy to be carried along on the concerns of a misfit teenager or a compromised adult without understanding how effectively the author has manipulated you.

There are, though, those psychic twins. There’s even, to some extent, a good twin and a bad one, though their sibling sense trumps all. And the story set in motion by their uneasy relationship to their powers and each other is what leads the novel into the realm of soap opera. So what’s not to like? There’s a mildly unhappy childhood in St. Louis, where the awkwardness of a sixth sense does double duty as the strangeness of adolescence. Then there are the adjustments of adulthood, unevenly felt by the twins, Violet and Daisy, as one (Vi) embraces her psychic self (or at least her spiritual visitor, “Guardian”) and the other lives the life of wife and mother, normal in every way until it suddenly isn’t. When Vi, unwittingly abetted by Daisy, projects a catastrophe, we have to find out how that turns out. This projection (will it come true?) provides the more palpable suspense while the unfolding of Daisy’s life (she tells the story) provides the more typical sort: What happens next?

What’s interesting is how these two turn out to be not so different, how anticipating the future is a gamble, regardless of the powers one possesses.

Novelist Ellen Akins (ellenakins.com) teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

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  • Curtis Sittenfeld , author of “Sisterland.”

  • SISTERLAND

    By: Curtis Sittenfeld.

    Publisher: Random House, 400 pages, $27.

    Review: As with her best-selling “American Wife,” Sittenfeld here displays her great ability to make the bizarre both believable and everyday.

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