by Curtis Sittenfeld

(Random House, $27, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

When Curtis Sittenfeld, now 38, published her debut novel, “Prep,” in 2005, she was blessed and cursed by a slew of enthusiastic reviews making positive comparisons to “The Catcher in the Rye” – blessed because that is quite a compliment and cursed because it’s nearly impossible to live up to. The book became a best-seller and Sittenfeld (who is female, by the way, though her given name suggests otherwise), went on to write other successful novels: “The Man of My Dreams” and “American Wife,” whose main character suggests former First Lady Laura Bush.

What is this book about?

First of all, a Happy Thanksgiving to all Under the Covers readers. And second, here is a book about family ties, something we all think about on Turkey Day.

The novel follows the lives of identical twins who share a psychic ability to predict the future and read other people’s secrets. Violet makes her living as a medium, but Kate, a wife and mother formerly known as Daisy, tries to hide her unusual and often disturbing talents, just as she has changed her name.

As grown women in their hometown of  St. Louis,   a small earthquake hits and Violet predicts a serious one will follow. Kate is embarrassed, but secretly thinks her more flamboyant sister might be right about that. Both are forced to examine their difficult relationship and the simultaneously comforting and constricting nature of family ties.

Why you’ll like it:

Few readers can resist a good, solid tale of frayed connections, and “Sisterland” has that in spades. Sister and sister, husband and wife, colleague and colleague: every pairing in this book is fraught with tension. After all, it is not only the earth that has dangerous fault lines: there can be earthquakes in personal relationships too. Reviewers are praising Sittenfeld for her ability to evoke family life and the way we can be both annoyed and enthralled by our siblings, often at the same time.

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “Her psychic sister’s prediction of a major earthquake unsettles a St. Louis woman’s life in the latest from best-selling Sittenfeld. …Although identical twins Violet and Daisy Shramm as girls both had “the senses,” Daisy suppressed her abilities as part of her transformation into ordinary Kate Tucker, wife to Washington University professor Jeremy and mother to toddler Rosie and baby Owen. She’s mortified by being related to a professional psychic and appalled when Vi publicly contradicts seismologist Courtney Wheeling, who says a small quake that rattles St. Louis in September 2009 is not necessarily a prelude to a bigger one. Courtney is Jeremy’s colleague, and her husband, Hank, also a stay-at-home parent, is close with Kate’s. Vi is oblivious to the messy reality of life with small children, and we frequently see her imposing on her overwhelmed sister while condemning Kate (not without justification) as uptight and controlling; it’s a skillful way for Sittenfeld to spotlight the differences that make the twins’ interactions so fraught. The present-day narrative, moving toward the date Vi set for the big quake, intertwines with Kate’s memories of childhood and adolescence to explain why she felt so threatened by her powers–and to reveal a marriage as fraught in its own ways as Kate’s bond with Vi. Jeremy is exasperated by his wife’s anxieties, which sometimes threaten to dominate their lives; she feels inferior to her better educated, more relaxed spouse. The novel has some structural problems; scenes from the twins’ past take up more pages than their intrinsic interest merits and sometimes annoyingly interrupt the compelling main story. These flaws are insignificant compared with the powerful denouement: a shocking yet completely plausible act by Kate and its grim consequences for her marriage. The quiet closing pages remind us that damaged bonds can be repaired. A rich portrait of intricate relationships within and among families by one of commercial fiction’s smartest, most perceptive practitioners.”

Says Library Journal:  “Identical twins Kate and Vi (Violet) were born with scattershot psychic abilities. As grown women, living wildly divergent lives in St. Louis, they are inextricably tied to each other in cranky, frustrating, and often combative ways. Narrator Kate has worked hard to mask her “sixth sense” by transforming herself into an ordinary wife to loving, even-keeled husband Jeremy and mother of two adorable kids, but she has enormous insecurities. Kate and Jeremy’s neighbors are Courtney (who is also Jeremy’s colleague) and her stay-at-home husband Hank, who is Kate’s best friend. Vi is an exuberant, self-centered self-promoter who gives psychic readings for a living. When an earthquake rattles St. Louis in September 2009, Vi’s prediction that a much bigger one is on the way gains national traction, setting off a media circus and geographic panic. As well, Kate’s reluctant, growing involvement in Vi’s life leads to a shocking, seismic disruption on her home front. VERDICT Any one of the many themes in this latest novel from Sittenfeld …. would make for a riveting story. The author turns conventions on their collective head and creates a world that is familiar, maddening, alluring, and, ultimately, guardedly hopeful.”

In The New York Times,  Michiko Kakutani writes: “…Sittenfeld…manages to make [the sisters'] day-to-day relationship palpably real, capturing the alternating waves of loyalty and passive-aggressive competition that animate their every exchange. She shows us the anxieties and insecurities that underlie the choices the sisters have made throughout their lives, and makes us feel the weight of shared history that they carry in their hearts…Ms. Sittenfeld proves equally adept at capturing the rhythms of Kate’s daily life with her husband and their children…The author gives us an Updikean portrait of life in Kate and Jeremy’s comfortable St. Louis suburb that is every bit as well observed as the world of private school evoked in Prep…her portrait of Kate—much like her portrait of the Laura Bush-like heroine of American Wife—is so psychologically vivid that the reader easily overlooks the slick story line…Sisterland is a testament to the author’s growing depth and assurance as a writer.”

“Novelists get called master storytellers all the time, but Sittenfeld really is one, a kind of no-nonsense, BabyBjörn-wearing Scheherazade. . . . What might be most strikingly excellent about Sisterland is the way Sittenfeld depicts domesticity and motherhood,” says The Washington Post

“The power of [Sittenfeld’s] writing and the force of her vision challenge the notion that great fiction must be hard to read. She is a master of dramatic irony, creating fully realized social worlds before laying waste to her heroines’ understanding of them. . . . Her prose [is] a rich delight,” says The Boston Globe.

When is it available?

It doesn’t take psychic abilities to know that “Sisterland” is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.