At times, the events described by Curtis Sittenfeld in her new book begin to feel a little too real. Though the premise of Sisterland is wildly implausible – a self-proclaimed psychic predicting the date and location of a natural disaster, then telling the world of her prophesy – the setting is all too convincing as we follow the inevitable fallout. Kate, our protagonist, does not inhabit the world of the supernatural. Her days are spent caring for two infant children, shopping for groceries and collapsing on the sofa with a tub of ice cream and an exhausted husband – hardly the stuff of sci-fi fantasy – yet as she becomes increasingly apprehensive about what is to come, we too start to question whether events are as improbable as they might seem.
But although the lead characters experience ‘senses’ about the future, this isn’t a work of science fiction, nor, really, is it about whether the extraordinary can occur, much less in the 21st century Mid West. It’s about sisters – hence the title of Sisterland – twins, in fact, who have and still do share so much and yet live their lives along totally different lines. Kate has chosen the conventional path and her resentment at her more quirky sibling’s intrusion on that normality is believable. Her desire, for example, to ensure that Vi does not embarrass herself – at least with what she wears – when she goes on national television to discuss her earthquake prediction, is understandable, and does not make her the villain of the plot. The joy in Sittenfeld’s characterisation, both here and in her previous novels, is that her protagonists sometimes fall short, yet manage to remain both sympathetic and engaging. Kate is conflicted, between her cynical scientist husband – and a disparaging academic community – and her awareness that her twin is not simply an attention-seeker. As the predicted disaster date draws nearer, reconciling this becomes ever more challenging.
This is Sittenfeld’s first book since 2008, and she doesn’t disappoint. Fans of her previous novels (the brilliant acerbic account of boarding school life that was Prep, and the thinly-veiled Laura Bush biography, American Wife) will see that she has matured as a writer (and, as a mother herself, now has different experience on which to draw) but has not lost her ability to set the scene and develop a gripping plot.
Sisterland is hard to categorise; it’s about family and relationships, but also takes a challenging look at modern America and its struggles with racism and abortion. It’s an intensely clever premise, and one that provides the author with a launching-off point to look candidly at the sacrifices and loyalties of family and marriage. Overall, it’s an intelligent, well-crafted and unputdownable read, and one that leaves you guessing until the very end.
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld is available to buy online here.