A few weeks ago, I announced that I was going to be writing a review post for every book I read. The observant amongst you might have noticed that since then, there haven’t been any book reviews, which might lead you to think that I’m either rubbish at sticking to plans, or an incredibly slow reader. In actual fact, it’s down to two issues – picking a book that I really couldn’t get on with but stubbornly refusing to read anything else until I’d finished it, and feeling that I really shouldn’t be reading when I should be finishing Ivory Terrors.
I finally gave up on The Teleportation Accident (I’m in two minds about whether I should review a book that I didn’t finish, it’s not something that happens to me very often at all) and a blissful week in Italy finally gave me the space to get some serious reading done. Over the next couple of days, I’ll therefore be putting up the reviews of my holiday reading. I’m starting with Sisterland, the latest book from Curtis Sittenfeld. She’s one of my absolute favourite authors, and one of the few writers of realistic, contemporary fiction that I enjoy at all.
From an early age, Kate and her identical twin sister, Violet, knew that they were unlike everyone else. Kate and Vi were born with peculiar “senses”—innate psychic abilities concerning future events and other people’s secrets. Though Vi embraced her visions, Kate did her best to hide them.
Now, years later, their different paths have led them both back to their hometown of St. Louis. Vi has pursued an eccentric career as a psychic medium, while Kate, a devoted wife and mother, has settled down in the suburbs to raise her two young children. But when a minor earthquake hits in the middle of the night, the normal life Kate has always wished for begins to shift. After Vi goes on television to share a premonition that another, more devastating earthquake will soon hit the St. Louis area, Kate is mortified. Equally troubling, however, is her fear that Vi may be right. As the date of the predicted earthquake quickly approaches, Kate is forced to reconcile her fraught relationship with her sister and to face truths about herself she’s long tried to deny.
Funny, haunting, and thought-provoking, Sisterland is a beautifully written novel of the obligation we have toward others, and the responsibility we take for ourselves.
MY REVIEW – 5 Stars
Curtis Sittenfeld’s first novel, Prep, is one of my all-time favourite books, and I’ve also hugely enjoyed her other works. Therefore, I was going into this one with high expectations, especially as I’d heard it had a telepathy themes, and I always love it when authors blend a literary approach with paranormal or fantasy elements.
I absolutely wasn’t disappointed. This is a beautifully written novel with characters that take on a life of their own. The paranormal aspects (basically, the lead characters are psychic twins) is quite subtle, and acts more as a catalyst for the story than the main focus of the ploy. Ultimately, the book is about family relationships – between sisters, of course, but also between children and parents (in both directions), and between husbands and wives. I particularly loved the way the central marital relationship was portrayed. Fiction generally only shows love affairs during their passionate beginnings or bitter endings, but here was a touching (though never overly sentimental) steady-state relationship, complete with a few non-explicit scenes of hot marital sex.
For most of the book, very little happens. The story divides about fifty/fifty between the narrator reminiscing about her life up until this point, and scenes of her and the people around her getting on with their fairly normal lives. Usually, that would be enough to make me drop a book after a few chapters. I feel no shame in admitting that for me, plot usually comes first. However, there’s something about Sittenfeld’s writing that just gels with me. Scenes of her characters taking a baby to a park are oddly compelling, and sometimes even a little profound.
The flashbacks are done particularly well. Just like in Prep, adult hindsight is used to add both distance and poignancy to teenage memories. It’s subtle, but the “present day” scenes are actually also being told in flashback from a few years into the future, and this adds an interesting extra dimension.
This book probably isn’t for everyone. If you can’t cope without tons of action, look away now. Similarly, if you like gritty tales, Sittenfeld probably isn’t for you, full stop. I’m perfectly happy with stories of middle class life, but if you have a low tolerance for “first world problems” then consider yourself fairly warned.
If you liked the author’s other novels, however, then I can confidently report that there hasn’t been a drop in standards. And if you’re just looking for an enjoyable literary novel, then I’d hugely recommend it.
One final thought – this hugely reminded me of my favourite story in Girl Reading, which tells the tale of two Victorian psychic twins, one of whom embraces their power while the other denies it. I’d love to know if Sittenfeld has read it!
This review mentions two other books and for anyone who is interested, my review of Prep (5 stars) can be found here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R1APBIXP34IE42
And my review of Girl Reading (3 stars) can be found here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R2O1W6C6G9ELRK
Incidentally, while its influence may not be as obvious as, say, The Vampire Diaries, I consider Prep to be one of my major inspiration for The Cavaliers in its treatment of a normal girl at an elite institution. The first few chapters I wrote (long before it even involved vampires!) quite self-consciously tried to imitate her style, before I decided to go in a totally different direction.