Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld, has a population of two. Sittenfeld, author of Prep and American Wife, is no stranger to characters dealing with inner turmoil and struggling to be accepted by others, and the characters in Sisterland are no exception. Twins Kate and Violet (Vi) share a lonely childhood, with a largely absent mother and a father who is loving but distracted by work and his depressed wife. Added to normal teen angst and a dysfunctional family, the twins have a secret: they are psychic.
The characters are at the heart of the novel. The story is told from Kate’s point of view, in both the present timeline and in flashbacks to various times in the girl’s lives. Kate is the sister who longs to fit in with the other kids at school, who wants a normal family, who doesn’t want to be psychic… Except when she does; when it can help her get what she wants. Vi is wild, rebellious and welcoming of the “senses” that give the girls the ability to have premonitions through dreams and visions.
The plotline involving the sisters and their past is gripping. I found myself wanting to know why their mother was so distant, why Kate wanted nothing to do with the girls’ “senses” and if Vi and Kate’s big prediction was right, and if it was, what would the impact be on their lives. The scenes between the sisters get everything right-the years of unspoken resentment, the pride and the love. When Kate helps her sister shop for an interview outfit, despite not wanting her to actually go through with the interview, the characters didn’t just remind me of friends, they felt like friends, and that quality in a book is something special.
While the relationship between the sisters shined, the plotline with the rest of the book faltered. Without going too far into spoilerland (see what I did there?) I’ll just say that what starts as an interesting plotline devolves into unexpectedly out of character melodrama. Kate in particular acts in ways towards the end of the novel that make no sense given her actions and emotions previously in the story. As a character that is happy with her life, marriage and motherhood, Kate suddenly pursues a course of action that endangers everything she loves. I’m not saying that this is unrealistic, it just feels like Sittenfeld is suddenly shying away from the connection between the sisters and their connection to some other sense- the very thing that makes the book so interesting from the start.
Sittenfeld is at her best when she delved into the hearts and minds of her characters. Kate and Vi are fully developed characters that you want to follow. Unfortunately, the story takes a turn on a path that would have been best left unexplored. Sittenfeld’s writing is fast-paced and often emotionally moving; her descriptions of familial relations are particularly powerful. If you’ve read and enjoyed Sittenfeld’s other works, give Sisterland a try; if not, Sisterland is a solid story about twins with a touch of the paranormal.