Curtis Sittenfeld’s fiction often focusses on the question of a woman’s identity, shifting and pulsing, whether from the perspective of a teenage girl or a president’s wife (as in Prep and American Wife).
When Daisy and Violet were little girls, twins, the sign on their bedroom door identified the population of Sisterland as two. But as they have grown, their relationship has both narrowed and broadened to accommodate their changing perspectives on the world, their own and that which surrounds them.
Sisterland still exists as a nation, but its population changes and the borders contract and swell; sometimes it seems completely uninhabited and other times it is bursting at the seams, as others brush against and break the boundaries.
Putting twins at the heart of her fourth novel, Curtis Sittenfeld inherently illuminates the question of identity in this story.
Is a twin, by definition, half of a whole? Can either sister truly exist independently of the other? (“’But it’s not your job to save her from herself. She’s her own person.’”)
Is a partnership ever truly equal? Although Sisterland is narrated from one sister’s perspective, and she seems to carry an inordinate amount of responsibility for her twin, the reader’s initial impressions of the dynamics in their relationship may have been skewed.
Is the intense intimacy between these two a source of strength or weakness? “We have these articles of faith about ourselves, but sometimes they’re wrong.”
These questions have also surfaced in the author’s earlier works, even in the shortest, least detail-soaked of them, The Man of My Dreams. But although the female characters in these novels are often engaged in absorbing romantic relationships (married or otherwise), there are other relationships of equal importance in each story.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s women are not the stuff-of-chicklit. In the hands of another writer, they might be.
But not only are the thorny realities of women’s lives displayed, not only are they inhabited by flawed and human characters (readers often complain that her characters are unlikeable, a charge which Claire Messud recently faced as well), but a space is afforded to readers who can remark upon (even resist) the injustice.
For instance, Sisterland‘s narrator has children. This does raise some interesting issues from a feminist perspective (her difficulty returning to work, the question of which parent will choose to be primarily responsible for childcare, etc.) and indeed parenthood is an overarching theme in the story (both in terms of the twins’ relationships with their parents and, in turn, their philosophies about parenting children of the next generation).
But while these matters are overtly considered, what sets them apart is the author’s decision to present the ugliness of sexism without adornment, which invites readers to respond. Take, for instance, this scene when the narrator meets a high-school friend.
“And as I chased Rosie, I was fairly sure that I’d come ahead in our exchange, or nonexchange. Because here I was with my two cute children, and I’d noticed that the ring finger of Marisa’s left hand was bare. This was the nastiest, most elemental math, made no less ugly for its undeniability: I ended up with a husband and you didn’t.”
At this point in the story, readers feel as though they know Kate well. That’s a dangerous claim, because Kate doesn’t know herself that well. In fact, she is still sometimes Daisy (or, Daze) and sometimes Kate (an identity she adopted when she went to college, distanced from her sister – her other half? – for the first time). But because the prose style is dense and the view so interior, a kind of intimacy has developed between her character and readers.
Even so, a scene like this might leave readers tight-lipped and miffed. Kate opts in, adopts the mechanisms of sexism that she has criticized in other portions of her story, momentarily accepting a false sense of superiority and stepping aside from her principles. In this moment, Kate is not likeable; in this moment, Kate is human, re-drawing her borders, preparing to be someone else if necessary.
This is a simple scene (and only one of many which might cause readers’ lips to purse and tongues to cluck) but there are many moments of conflict and chaos, and the ground shifts beneath readers’ feet, making for an unsettled feeling.
“On average, an earthquake of magnitude 6 or greater happens somewhere in the world every three days. Mostly, they happen underwater, and we hardly take notice.”
This talk of earthquakes is deliberate, this twinned sense of shifting certainties and inevitable chaos. It is partly because Kate’s understanding of herself is in flux. Partly because the articles of faith that she has about herself are wrong (which she glimpses, at times, but does not wholly believe). And partly because the amount of detail in the story and the number of subplots is overwhelming.
The stories that Kate tells herself about her parents and her sister are seemingly at the heart of this novel. Vi is a vibrant character and it is interesting to imagine what kind of story she would tell if you could turn this volume over and read the other sister’s version of events.
But what is truly core to readers’ experience of Sisterland is an awareness that readers will never inhabit this land. It is not only a fictional place, but readers only ever have this narrator’s description of its politics and culture.
Vi “would say that we create our own reality – that the truth, ultimately, is what we choose to believe”. And Kate would admit that she did not start out imagining the kind of reality for herself that she inhabits by the end of the novel, but she did have a hand in creating it.
It’s not necessarily a nice place to live, but for readers who appreciate Curtis Sittenfeld’s detail-soaked and identity-rooted storytelling, Sisterland is a great place to visit.
Have you read this author before? Or, do you plan to?