Curtis Sittenfeld came into the spotlight with her 2005 novel “Prep” and 2008 bestseller, “American Wife,” loosely based on first lady Laura Bush. (Although it’s a positive portrayal of the main character, Mrs. Bush insists she’s never read it.) Sittenfeld’s newest novel, “Sisterland” (2013), ventures into territory far from these earlier works about a New England prep school and the Washington political arena. Here she tells the story of identical twin sisters who were born with psychic ability but deal with it in completely different ways.
Traditional Kate tries to live unostentatiously as a St. Louis housewife and mother of two young children whereas Violet, who lives just minutes away from her sister, is a practicing psychic. The story builds when Violet appears on a TV news show predicting that an earthquake will strike the area on a specific date that fall. And in case we need to be reminded of the horrific damage that earthquakes can wreak or that Missouri has had its share of them, Sittenfeld begins with a prologue in which Kate gives a chilling account of three catastrophic quakes that took place in the area in 1811 and 1812.
Kate, who narrates the story, has tried to ignore her psychic abilities because she doesn’t want to accept them, yet she and Violet have made enough correct predictions for her to trust her sister. This throws Kate’s daily life into chaos. Sittenfeld’s writing is at its best when she covers Kate’s everyday activities. The dialogue is pitch perfect. Every young mother will hear herself in Kate interactions with her children (Rosie, 3, and Owen, 1); her husband, Jeremy; and Hank, the husband of Jeremy’s colleague Courtney and a stay-at-home dad with whom Kate and her kids spend time every day. Violet adds a refreshing change with her colorful language, her budding lesbian relationship and her ongoing involvement with the media.
Flashbacks enrich the story by showing how the two sisters evolved as they did. Kate revisits the alarming behavior of their depressed mother, the creative world the two young girls called “Sisterland,” and the flashes of psychic ability that made them pariahs during their teen years.
It’s an entertaining, informative novel, though jerky toward the end. The events are completely out of left field, but Sittenfeld keeps you reading, anxious to discover how a surprising turn of events will be resolved. As Sittenfeld says in an interview, “‘Sisterland’ is not fundamentally about being psychic. It’s about marriage, sisterhood and life in the suburbs.”