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Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld book review


Sisterland is a modern American tale about identical twin sisters with hidden gifts. Growing up in 80s St Louis with a hostile, depressed mother and an ineffectual father, Violet and Kate had eerie dreams and premonitions that they called their “senses”.

Now in the present day, the sisters have taken divergent paths through adulthood; Kate – the sole narrator – has taken the conventional route in life, living with her husband and their two small children in the suburbs. By contrast, Violet is a proud, rebellious misfit, who uses her gifts to earn a crust as a psychic and medium.

When a minor earthquake strikes, Violet has a premonition of a catastrophic follow-up. After she announces the date in a television interview, she becomes an overnight media sensation, with the ensuing international attention rocking Kate’s carefully constructed domestic life and already tense relationship with her twin sister.

The chapters alternate between the present day fallout from Violet’s prophecy, and the twins’ troubled high school years, where Kate was ashamed of her psychic ability. Here Sisterland covers a lot of the same territory that Sittenfeld’s earlier work Prep navigated – namely the horrors of adolescence, only the twins get branded ‘witches’ by their classmates.

Kate and Violet’s abilities are an innate part of them, and they are presented as matter-of-fact. The reader is not left questioning whether Violet is really a bit of a nutter, or an old fraud. Even our sensible, goody-two-shoes protagonist suspects her twin might be right about the impending doom.

The extrasensory flashes prove to be a blessing, as they help break up Kate’s mundane home life and her judgmental inner voice. As someone who enjoyed the extreme introspection of Sittenfeld’s earlier, really quite similar heroines, Kate is irritatingly priggish.

Again Sittenfeld explores the intricacies of female relationships with an alarming – almost spooky – perceptiveness. Then there’s Kate’s friendship with fellow stay-at-home parent Hank, who is married to Courtney, who in turn is a colleague of Kate’s geologist husband. Given Vi’s antics, things get pretty awkward between the two couples, with Courtney subtly ratcheting up the sarcasm and cutting remarks.

It’s a shame it’s hard to muster much sympathy for Kate. After all, her control freakishness could be read as an attempt to escape fate; even when motherhood is a drag, be the perfect wife and mother and nothing bad will happen. Violet’s life might be chaotic, but at least she’s true to herself.

Sisterland is a hard novel to categorize, which might be why it feels slightly messy. Towards the end, some of uptight Kate’s choices feel implausible, yet the uncertainty and suspense as the emotional and physical earthquakes play out still make for a genuinely absorbing conclusion.

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