Sisterland, By Curtis Sittenfeld: Book review - unnerved and entertained by a psychic sister act

 

Fans never know quite what to expect from a Curtis Sittenfeld novel. Her debut, Prep, was a coming-of-age story set at a New England boarding school. This was followed by American Wife, inspired by the life of former first lady Laura Bush. In Sisterland, she changes direction once again with a richly imagined tale about identical twins with paranormal powers.

Violet and Kate have always been aware of their psychic gifs. As children they could locate missing children. But since college, Kate has blanked her powers and fought hard to pass as an ordinary suburban mother. Meanwhile, "Vi" has set up shop as a professional psychic. When the novel opens Vi is being interviewed on local television about her prediction that an earthquake is about to hit St Louis. A media storm ensues, and Kate finds herself both mortified by her sibling's role, but also terrified for the safety of her two toddlers, Rosie and Owen, sharing as she does her sibling's unnerving premonition.

As the fateful day approaches, the novel travels back to Kate and Violet's adolescence spent in the company of their depressed mother and silent father. Sittenfeld's kooky plot might sound like something plucked from the pages of an Alice Hoffman novel, but she uses it to explore intriguing themes: from sibling rivalry to the nature of free-will and the role of destiny.

As always in her fiction, Sittenfeld descriptions of characters' everyday lives verge on the voyeuristic as the reader becomes privy to the contents of their fridges, bathroom cabinets and email files. Kate is married to Jeremy, a goodie-two-shoes geophysics professor, but as the narrative unfolds, we start to wonder about their relationship with best friends, Hank and Courtney Wheeling, who live just down the street.

This assured and confident novel successfully combines the high-concept fantasy of Bewitched with the high-brow realism of Updike or Tyler. Readers will find themselves generously entertained as they await the seismic shift that will shake up the interconnected worlds of Sittenfeld's all-seeing sister act.

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