Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

A new Sittenfeld novel is always a treat, and Sisterland is a beautifully absorbing read. It’s one of those books that you can’t wait to get back to when you have to put it down, and then feel bereft when it’s finished. In fact, I haven’t yet been able to get on with the next book in my tbr pile, it’s too soon.

Kate wants a quiet, normal life. She’s a stay at home mum to Owen and Rosie, is happily married to Jeremy, and spends her days on playdates with friend and neighbour, Hank, and his daughter. Hank is married to Courtney, a professor of geophysics, who works with Jeremy. The two couples socialise together, pop in and out of each others houses, and have a good relationship. When Vi, Kate’s identical twin sister, appears on TV predicting a catastrophic earthquake, it’s Courtney who appears opposite her, ridiculing her claim and offering a coolly scientific point of view. Fissures appear in all of their lives.

Where Kate is anxious, controlling and rigid, Vi is expansive, spontaneous and impulsive. Sittenfeld manages to make the reader empathise with both of them. Vi looks like she’s having more fun maybe, but I identified with the mummy angsting of Kate. Both twins have always had “senses” although having been ostracised in high school because if her ability to tell the future, Kate has long since attempted to ignore any feelings she has. She’s furious with Vi for the publicity which surrounds her announcement, and fears that she will be identified as Vi’s twin, and therefore be seen as creepy and different, once again. Loathe as she is to play any part in the prediction a date suddenly fixes itself in her mind, and she feels she has to tell Vi.

Sittenfeld is a classy writer and a great observer of people. The psychic parts are underplayed and seem nothing much more than the general feelings we all get from time to time – this is no schlocky paranormal story. Instead, we are treated to many telling details and conversations.

“Are you embarrassed to be married to me?” I’d thought I was making a joke, but aloud it didn’t sound like one.

Sittenfeld expertly sweeps us back and forth in time, creating entire lives. We learn about the twin’s parents, their depressed mother and apparently somewhat clueless dad, we learn about school, first boyfriends, friendships, jobs, partners. It’s the same skillful layering that was employed so well in American Wife. And all the while tension builds as we approach the dreaded date of the predicted earthquake. It’s another pageturner, and Sittenfeld has proven once again that she’s one of the very best storytellers around.

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