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A Book A Week: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

In the Curtis Sittenfeld novel Sisterland, the eponymous country is inhabited by two people only: a set of twins, Daisy and Violet. As children, the Sisterland geography was their shared bedroom, but it was also the inside of their heads.

Daisy and Violet are psychic twins with the ability to see other people's secrets and destinies. This ability becomes Violet's raison d'etre, and as an adult she makes her living as a medium. But it freaks Daisy out so much that she changes her name, renounces her skills, and anesthetizes herself in the role of suburban housewife. She tries to be everything that Vi is not: thin, heterosexual, almost invisible. Or as she thinks of it, "normal."

In present day St. Louis, Daisy, now called Kate, is married to a sweet guy named Jeremy and has two small children. While they no longer live in Sisterland, Kate and Vi are still connected both psychically and emotionally. When Vi makes a public prediction that an earthquake is imminent, Kate is horrified and humiliated, and yet cannot prevent herself from getting drawn into the controversy.

Kate's got other problems, too, including a long-simmering attraction to a stay-at-home dad from the neighborhood, a nursing baby and a needy toddler, the laundry, the grocery shopping, the bad wardrobe, and a father who develops angina while visiting a prostitute. This book exhausted me, and I'm not even mentioning the abortion subplot(s). But life is like that -- the clothes still need to be washed, even when your sister is generating widespread panic in the city where you live.

Sittenfeld tells a good story, but I'm not in love with her writing style in this book. Her prose is sometimes inelegant and repetitive; why is that? But she also makes profound, elemental observations about families, fate and destinies; here she just serves them up on paper plates rather than fine china. If you liked Prep (Sittenfeld's breakout book) you will probably like this, though it's not nearly as good as American Wife, which is a more sophisticated and polished book in every way.

About the abortion theme: This is a rare thing indeed in 21st century fiction and television. I think writers avoid this most polarizing topic out of fear, and I congratulate Sittenfeld for even attempting it. Two pregnant women contemplate abortion; one chooses it and the other doesn't. I tried not to read any kind of moral judgment into the characters' choices, and I don't think Sittenfeld was ascribing any, but it's hard not to think about it.

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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