Sisterland

9781410460189_p0_v1_s260x420If you knew an earthquake was coming to your neighborhood, would you leave town? Curtis Sittenfeld uses this premise in Sisterland while addressing how siblings are never alike – except when they are.  Adding to the drama, the sisters in the book – Violet and Daisy – are twins with psychic powers or maybe just a sharper sense of intuition.

The story moves back and forth from the girls’ childhood in the seventies of St. Louis, Missouri to present day, with Violet’s fifteen minutes of fame, including an interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show, when she predicts an earthquake on a specific date in the midwest town.  Although both girls share more than a sisterly connection, branding their room “sisterland” as well as their unusual gift for understanding and knowing the others’ thoughts as a shared sister land, only Violet progresses to adulthood as a paid medium.  Daisy, now Kate as an adult, marries a geophysicist, has two children, and burns any possibility of lingering extraordinary “senses” in a silver bowl after her daughter is born.  Although the plot line is melodramatic and, at times, more like a soap opera, Sittenfeld downplays the psychic talent and concentrates on the descriptions of daily life for the sisters.  Kate, the responsible twin, counters Violet’s behavior as the free spirit.  Yet, they understand each other, and share a unique communication that is realistic and engaging.

The sisters’ connections with family and friends add to the drama.  Courtney, the slim, intelligent seismologist and colleague of Kate’s husband, provides a counterpoint for the sisters’ less prestigious career choices. Courtney’s stay-at-home husband creates a confidante for Kate.  Jeremy, the handsome university professor husband, manages his life with Kate and his strange sister-in-law with patience and detached realism, until the possibility of the earthquake threatens to undermine his attendance at an out-of-town conference.  His decision to leave, despite his sister-in-law’s warning and his wife’s pleading, leads to a figurative earthquake at home.

Knowing whether or not the real earthquake actually happens would spoil the anticipation that keeps the narrative moving – and kept me reading.  More importantly, the drama that unfolds shakes the story and leaves behind extraordinary aftershocks.  The book can be long-winded at times, but an easy, entertaining read.

from Ann Beattie’s Imagination – Mrs. Pat Nixon

A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, with her own collection of short stories making the best seller list (see the review below), Ann Beattie has imagined Pat Nixon’s life in a fictionalized version of the former first lady’s life and thoughts – Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life – to be published this month.  Not the first time a First Lady has recently been subjected to conjecture:  Laura Bush in Curtis Sittenfeld’s An American Wife, Hilary Clinton in Sue Miller’s The Senator’s Wife.  Monica Ali even resurrected Princess Diana with a new life in Untold Story.

In her article for the New York Times, Me and Mrs. Nixon, Beattie offers her rationale for creating her own scrutiny of Richard Nixon’s wife – a seeming paragon of old-fashioned values, married to a man with no values.  What must have been going on in her head?  How did she manage to fade so effectively into the background – even behind the intensity of her daughters?

Beattie offered a taste of what to expect in her recent excerpt in The New Yorker – Starlight.  The book might be fun to read, but, like others in this genre, it could be hard to remember it’s fiction.

  • Read the review of Ann Beattie – the New Yorker Storieshere

Untold Story

What if – like Elvis – Princess Diana didn’t really die?  What if she were living an obscure life somewhere?  In Monica Ali’s Untold Story, Diana still lives in Kensington, but in North Carolina, and works at an animal shelter.

Ali alternates the beginning chapters from describing Lydia Snaresbook’s (Diana) new life, friends, and lover ten years after her funeral, with Lawrence’s diary.  Lawrence, her faithful assistant, helped her escape to start a new life; in Ali’s version, she survives the tunnel crash and later fakes her death in a swimming accident. Through his notes as he lay dieing of cancer, Lawrence reveals the details – everyone needs an accomplice to go into hiding.

Lydia starts to get sloppy with her disguise – no longer wearing the brown contact lenses, buying gossip magazines to check on her sons.  By accident or fate, a former paparazzo, John “Grabber” Grabowski, happens to stop by the town; when he matches her eyes to old photos and suspects who she really is – the hunt is on.

When not mired down in the drudgery of Lydia’s new suburban life or the boring gossip of her new girlfriends, Monica Ali cleverly infuses ordinary life with extraordinary circumstances – using the mundane to reveal Lydia/Diana’s fears and insecurities, as well as her poise.  Ali makes Lydia a pathetic but remarkable character, emulating the real Diana.   When Lydia realizes that Grabowski has recognized her, the chase becomes a thriller.

Untold Story is not as thoughtful or satisfying as Brick Lane, her novel revealing the choices of a young married Bangladesh woman displaced in London, but Ali manages to create a story about the forlorn princess that uses Curtis Sittenfeld’s conceit in  American Wife,  based on First Lady Laura Bush -not quite believable – but fun to think about.

Tina Brown speculated what Diana would look like at 50.  Still lookin’ good – just like Elvis.