Sisterland is a tale about identical twin sisters with hidden gifts. Growing up in St Louis with a hostile, depressed mother and an ineffectual father, Violet and Kate have eerie dreams and premonitions that they call their “senses”.
The sisters take divergent paths through adulthood: Kate – the novel’s narrator – has taken the conventional route in life, living with her husband and their children in the suburbs, whereas Violet is a proud, rebellious misfit, earning a crust as a psychic and medium.
After a minor earthquake strikes, Violet has a premonition of a catastrophic follow-up. When she announces the date in a television interview, she becomes an overnight media sensation. The ensuing international attention rocks Kate’s domestic life and the siblings’ already tense relationship.
The chapters alternate between the present day fallout and the twins’ troubled back story. It covers a lot of familiar territory for Sittenfeld – such as awkward adolescence and self-identity.
Kate’s abilities are an innate part of her, and are presented as matter-of-fact. These extrasensory flashes are a blessing for the reader, as they help break up Kate’s mundane adult life and judgmental inner voice. As someone who enjoyed the extreme introspection of Sittenfeld’s other, rather similar heroines, Kate is irritatingly priggish.
Violet is lazy, stubborn, and delights in provoking her straight-laced twin, whilst Courtney – a work colleague and friend of Kate’s geologist husband – subtly ratchets up the sarcasm and cutting remarks.
Even if some of Kate’s choices feel unbelievable, Sittenfeld’s characters and the intricacies of female relationships are again depicted with an alarming – almost spooky – perceptiveness.
The ways in which earthquakes – romantic, emotional and physical – play out for the characters make for an absorbing conclusion.