If we tentatively agree that there is actually no such thing as a good or bad book (if we live in a world where readers can passionately argue the pro’s and con’s of writers such as, say, Dickens or Hardy) and that the only truthful thing you can really evaluate is one person’s experience of a book, then a review such as this one becomes an overview of a particular reading experience. I say this because it is only when you read a really good book, when you are transplanted from the world you inhabit and find yourself submerged (I should say wholly submerged) within a fictional one, that you become aware of that experience and what a glorious, almost narcotic thing it is. I was struck by this today as I read Curtis Sittenfeld’s fourth novel, Sisterland, virtually cover to cover and found myself so engaged (so submerged) that what little critical faculty I have remaining to me went out the window and I was, almost in spite of my usual tendencies, simply reading and enjoying a great novel.
Sisterland concerns, perhaps unsurprisingly, two sisters – Vi and our narrator Daisy (who has renamed herself Kate) – and the title of the novel is a label that Vi sticks to the bedroom door the two girls share when they are young. Switching between modern day St Louis and biography, we learn that the twins share psychic ability, although Daisy/Kate isn’t fond of her ability and does all she can to keep a lid on things whereas Vi makes a living from it. The main thrust of the book concerns a prediction Vi makes concerning an earthquake that will hit their local community and the ensuing press and media scrum that descends on both Vi and Daisy/Kate – but we are also filled in on their back story too (their upbringings, their distant mother, their first forays into friendships and sexuality, the first real flowering of their psychic ability). At the same time, however, there is a sense that the novel’s real subject is marriage and parenthood and the differences that grow among adults who have children and adults who do not.
Sittenfeld’s observations are acute – there are frequent occasions throughout the novel when she brings parenthood so vividly to life I found myself nodding (at the things parents beat themselves up about, about the wisdoms that feel profound but are actually prosaic) and also laugh out loud sequences (such as when a group of friends don’t take the hint about leaving, not having kids themselves, not knowing how tired you get). She is also extremely strong on marriage – much of the novel is taken up with Daisy/Kate’s marriage to Jeremy and the back and forth the couple share feels true and lively and funny and expertly realised. There were moments during Sisterland when I cast about to try and recall a reading experience as enjoyable and the closest I could get was comparing Sittenfeld to Richard Ford or Lorrie Moore. We are in that sort of country in Sisterland. There are also a score of plots and subplots, involving, say, Vi’s blossoming lesbianism or Daisy/Kate’s feelings about Jeremy’s colleagues, but to go into detail about each of these possibly robs the book of joys it is better to discover as a reader.
A lot of Sisterland reviews have celebrated Sittenfeld’s skill in taking the story of the essentially ‘boring’ sister (she’s a mother, she enjoys nothing more than staying in with her other half at night eating ice cream, she tends to roll her eyes a lot about her sister’s narcissistic qualities) and making it so compelling. These reviews miss the point somewhat. It isn’t that Daisy/Kate is boring – she isn’t, she’s fascinating – and more to do with the fact that Sittenfeld has a good eye for detail and a good eye for dialogue. Sisterland is like a blissful undertow: you read and her power is such you get sucked under, only to emerge 400 or so pages later thinking here’s a book I should recommend to people. Not only that. Here is a book by an author that we should all go off and read everything by. So I’m going to go and dust down the copy of American Wife I have sitting on a shelf – and you should make a beeline for the bookstore and treat yourself to one of the great novels of 2013.
Any Cop?: A real pleasure and a book that has moved Curtis Sittenfeld firmly up the list of writers we are going to read everything by in the future.