ESP, Earthquakes, and Empathy in Sittenfeld’s Sisterland
At the outset of Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld’s newest novel, twin sisters Violet and Kate have an argument over lunch, a typical sibling squabble. Single, freespirited Vi criticizes Kate for a life defined by motherhood: “Children are nothing but a problem people create and then congratulate themselves on solving,” she spurts.
This premise is intriguing on its own – focused on two twin sisters, who choose different life paths. But Sittenfeld adds an additional element: both sisters have “senses,” psychic abilities to perceive future events and other people’s inner secrets. And Vi chooses to make a profession of these senses, whereas Kate deliberately chooses to abandon them.
Sisterland was released in late June, and is Sittenfeld’s fourth novel. Her previous novels include Prep, the story of a young woman navigating an elite high school, and American Wife, a saga loosely based on the life of Laura Bush.
Sittenfeld is known for her relatable female narrators. Although most readers will not claim to have ESP, perhaps Kate is the most universal narrator of all. Kate is a mother and wife, and Sittenfeld aptly portrays middle class domestic life in the present day, filled with tedium, joy, and sometimes heartbreak.
The book begins with depictions of two earthquakes in St. Louis: one in 1811, and another in 2009. It then follows Kate as she waits for a third earthquake – one her sister has sensed is forthcoming.
The book is not only about the present day, though. What makes Sittenfeld’s work unprecedented is the non-linear narrative: it constantly flips from Kate’s present to her past, using flashbacks that lead to fuller understandings of the characters and their lives.
So although the plot moves forward based on a prediction of a future earthquake, the reader is privy to a smattering of metaphorical earthquakes in Kate’s life that have already passed: a child becoming sick, a middle schooler being bullied, a mother deciding one day not to get out of bed and make dinner. These are moments that shake her to the core, and shape her life.
And at the end of the novel, the reader is left with a deep knowledge of Kate, Violet, and their families and friends – their secrets, their mistakes, and ultimately, the bonds between them that cannot be shaken, spread out over a landscape of the past, the present, and the future.
At the outset of Sisterland, I was skeptical of its otherwordly premise. But in many of Kate’s stories I found parallels – between her life and mine, between her life and friends’ lives. Although the ending was surprising and a bit overdramatic, Sisterland is ultimately a novel full of empathy – for both its characters and, in turn, its reader.
You can find Sisterland (and other great reads!) at The Book Cove (www.pawlingbookcove.com), right in the heart of downtown Pawling.