Not yet forty, Curtis Sittenfeld has published four big books that navigate the difficult space between literary fiction and the expectations of a large audience. The main character of her first novel, Prep, was the consensus choice of readers and critics alike as the female successor to Holden Caulfield. American Wife, her third novel, appeared to fictionalize the life of Laura Bush. Her new novel, Sisterland, is the story of twin sisters who appear to be blessed or cursed with psychic powers.
One of their author’s many strengths is that she can write about this without either irony or belief. The unconventional sister, Violet, develops her abilities and becomes a professional fortune teller. Kate chooses marriage and motherhood and ignores, even sacrifices, her psychic talents. I am not a trustworthy judge of Sittenfeld’s much-praised portrayal of the lives of women, but I have a sibling, and this writer’s picture of the conflicts and often-extreme loyalties between sibs is spot on.
Sisterland’s plot turns around a prediction that Violet has made–that St. Louis will be hit by a major earthquake on a day that her reluctant sister has specified. As the twins, the nation, and Sittenfeld’s readers wait to see if the prediction comes true, we learn the personal history that has shaped their lives and perhaps even this prediction itself.
Sittenfeld has always been wonderful in creating the specific feel of the Midwest and the personalities of Midwesterners. There’s one lovely passage where the sisters, at seventeen, see a Burger King crown, a tacky promotional gimmick meant to appeal to three-year-olds, blow across a suburban highway in the middle of the night and recognize it as something almost beautiful. She continues, “Our windows were open, and the radio had been playing continuously–not one but two Billy Joel songs had come on during our drive–and the air was dense with the humidity of a Midwestern summer, weather that even then made me homesick, though it was hard to say for what.” Those of us who live here or who had the pleasure (or misfortune?) of those summers when we were seventeen, will recognize the moment and will relish its exquisite nostalgia.
Curtis Sittenfeld discusses Midwestern literature at a conference at the U-M Residential College on March 22.