Book Review: ‘Sisterland’ by Curtis Sittenfeld

SisterlandWell, I just finished ‘Sisterland‘ and if – and it’s a big ‘if’ – I ever run a marathon, I’m pretty sure I’ll feel the same way. Exhausted.

It’s essentially a book about twin sisters who have a vague ability to predict the future. One becomes a flaky hippie, hawking her ability as something of an 1800-dial-a-psychic. The other rejects the whole idea of being a psychic and settles down to a quiet life as a suburban mom. One day, the ‘professional psychic’ sister predicts that an earthquake will happen on a certain date and the rest of the book revolves around the lead-up to the date, with a chapter or two covering the fall-out afterwards.

The premise itself felt a little odd. Not that they were psychics (I can buy that for a while) but that the media and entire city of St. Louis would believe some quack about an earthquake for absolutely no good reason. The pinnacle of this madness was the preposterous idea that she would end up on the Today Show, ranting about her psychic predictions.

Curtis Sittenfeld is known for the huge detail in her books. I found this highly engaging in American Wife, one of my favourite books of all time. In that book – centring on a Barbara Bush-esque figure prior to and during her marriage to a George Bush-type president – I found the detail fascinating, as it brought to life the rich tapestry of interesting lives. However, in ‘Sisterland’ I found, disappointingly, that the sheer volume of detail swamped the thin plot.

She doesn’t prepare a meal. We have to hear exactly how she drained the noodles. She doesn’t travel across town, we hear a step-by-step account of how she sped up to overtake the car in front. She doesn’t say she’s going to the shops, she describes every turn, every street, every highway along the way. She doesn’t have sex, we have to read cringe-inducing detail about her lactating breasts….you get the picture.

For a while I paid close attention to these details. For example, her daughter Rose whimpers in her sleep, does that mean she’s psychic too? She meets an old guy at the playground, could he be crucial to the story? But eventually I realised they weren’t plot clues, or pertinent background information, but just cold, dry, insufferably boring everyday details.

The twins’ mother was clearly suffering from some sort of mental illness throughout their childhood, alluded to regularly, in great detail, but not explained until the end. I wondered was it debilitating depression? Had she suffered some horrific treatment? I kept waiting for some childhood trauma from her Baptist past to explain it. It comes, but explains absolutely nothing. Zip. They may have well said she was sad because she burned toast in 1972.

The hardest part to believe in this book is that for ninety per cent of the time, the character is mind-numbingly one-dimensional. Her memoir could be described to insomniacs. She’s a devoted Mom, supportive wife, disapproving sister and all-round suburban bore. She doesn’t have girlfriends, doesn’t socialise, doesn’t work out, doesn’t even read a darn book every now and then. I’ve no doubt looking after two kids under three would be exhausting, but surely – surely! –  Moms have lives too?!

But then, in that little narrow ten per cent, we’re asked to believe she had suddenly, for no reason, morphed into a completely different character, behaving in a way we never would have seen coming, even if we were psychics ourselves. It was less a twist, more a complete one-eighty.

Incredulity, boredom and frustration are words I rarely use when writing book reviews, but unfortunately all are applicable to ‘Sisterland’. I loved American Wife so much I’ll certainly read Curtis Sittenfeld’s next book, but I might just borrow it. I bought ‘Sisterland’, and unfortunately it just wasn’t worth the money.

One comment

  1. Dorothy Kealy
    July 14th, 2014 22:33

    You gave me the book The American Wife to read in France. I loved it, transported to that era with ease and aplomb. Your braver than me, I couldn’t pick up a disaster predicted by a psychic book if it was the on the shelf. Well done on your marathon R.M. Kealy

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