Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel, The American Wife, was one of those books that sat on my ‘must read’ tally for so long that it stopped being a book of current interest and eventually slid off the list. Periodically I have found myself regretting that ever since , nevermore so than now given that I have just read her latest book, Sisterland.
Nominally, the Sisterland of the title is the bedroom shared by identical twins, Violet and Daisy Shraam as they are growing up during the seventies and eighties in St Louis, Missouri. In fact, it is the emotional space occupied by the girls throughout their lives as they grow through teenage years into adulthood. Separated by temperament, ambition and above all their diametrically opposed stance to what they call their ‘sense’, they are nevertheless compelled by a bond they can neither of them completely deny.
The narrative works in two time frames. Initially we are introduced to a present day Kate, her childhood name of Daisy abandoned along with her acknowledgment of the psychic sense that has dogged both girls since their earliest years. Married to earth scientist, Jeremy, Kate’s days are more than taken up with looking after her two small children, Rosie and Owen and the last thing she needs is for Vi to make first local and then national headlines by predicting that the relatively small earthquake St Louis has just experienced is going to be followed by something much more disastrous. Caught between her need to support her husband who has a professional interest in rejecting any such suggestion and her own unwanted conviction that something earth shattering is indeed about to happen, Kate slowly spirals into a state of minor panic.
The second time frame takes us back through the twins’ earlier life and builds a picture of why Vi and Kate have such different attitudes to their shared ‘sense’. Lacking any real form of parental guidance and finding it difficult to make friends they ‘use’ their abilities in ways that eventually undermine Kate’s self-confidence and lead to her decision to reject her heightened power of awareness. But, however much Kate may try to convince herself that she has destroyed her ‘sense’, this earlier narrative makes it clear that it hasn’t been something she has been able to so easily walk away from.
Which is why, when Vi tells the world of her conviction that another earthquake is on the way it is Kate who adds the information that the relevant date is Oct 16th. Sittenfeld slips this information in almost without the reader noticing and even if you do notice, because it is Vi who fronts up to the public it is easy to forget, however, ultimately the fact that it is Kate who focuses on the 16th is pivotal in respect of the nature of the ‘earthquake’ that does occur and the aftermath with which the family has to deal.
I am ambivalent about the whole question of psychic powers. Despite Hamlet’s warning that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy I don’t believe in messages from the other side and I completely reject the notion of Vi’s ‘Guardian’. However, the only time we really see Vi ‘at work’ she appears to be sensing other people’s emotions rather than getting communications from beyond and I think Sittenfeld is particularly good at offering a version of otherworldly influences that is acceptable to both believer and sceptic alike. She is also very good at creating characters the reader wants to spend time with and for whom you are enthusiastically rooting, so that when they fall from grace your heart sinks. I wept for Kate at the end of this novel. Whether she really ‘senses’ the fact that something tumultuous is going to happen is almost irrelevant because what she certainly doesn’t foresee are the consequences which will go on through the coming years and decades.
This is a novel that will stay with me for a long time and I will now reinstate The American Wife and everything else that Sittenfeld has written onto my ‘must read’ list. Is there anything like the joy of discovering a ‘new’ writer?