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Thu June 27, 2013

In 'Sisterland,' Familial Fissures And A Pair Of Psychic Twins

Curtis Sittenfeld is the Ed Norton of the literary world. Popular but intellectual, accessible but mysterious and, above all — a perspective chameleon with an uncanny ability to enter the minds of callow prep school outcasts and devotedly compromising first ladies alike. With Sisterland, she takes this mind-entering business to a literal level. The story of a pair of adult psychic twin sisters in St. Louis, it would have been an obvious choice for Sittenfeld to tell her story in the form of dueling narration. Instead, we hear only from Kate, housewife, mother and the more clairvoyantly challenged of the two sisters. Challenged by choice, that is.

After a traumatic teenage sleepover involving a Ouija board and a popular girl (paging The Craft?), Kate is ingrained with a lifelong shame about her "senses." They inform her about deaths and marital affairs and things that no middle-schooler should know. Sittenfeld handles Kate's contact with the psychic realm with a light and logical touch that keeps Sisterland artfully within the bounds of believability. Kate becomes convinced there is a malignant force at work in the universe and that there will be a price to pay for acknowledging it, never mind indulging in or heeding it. Sittenfeld imbues Kate with a "keep making that face, you'll get stuck like that" logic more regularly applied to nail-biting or nose-picking. This is because Sisterland seems less concerned with making psychics believable than making psychic shame believable. Frankly, it's a valid concern and one that will ring true with anyone who has ever read a book or seen a movie featuring mutants or vampires and found these people's unpopularity the least plausible element of the narrative. By the time Kate enters adulthood, her life is predicated on a house of cards of insecurity and lies. But just in case Kate does not make a sufficiently strong case for letting her sixth sense atrophy, Sittenfeld has an insurance policy: the other sister.

Violet, or Vi, is less socially skittish than her twin. She is sexually promiscuous, overweight, judgmental, intentionally embarrassing and often offensive. She has also made a living out of being a psychic. She may lack a regular job or the ability to drive, but at least she knows who she is enough to experiment with it (Is she a lesbian? Is she straight? What's it to you?). In short, she reacts to her unusual abilities as a reader might guess she would — by embracing them. Too much, if you ask Kate. When Sisterland opens, Vi has gone on local television, publicly predicting that a major earthquake is about to hit St. Louis. As the book barrels forth to the portended date, Kate's own personal nightmare unfolds in the form of a media storm (complete with well-rendered interviews between Matt Lauer and Vi). Vi's predictions threaten to unravel Kate's carefully manufactured world which, naturally, was already unraveling before the book began.

Sisterland is, of course, more about sisters than psychics. These two would butt heads even if they only had 10 senses between them. Yes, there are fantastical questions posed when dealing with psychic siblings — Are they stronger together or apart? Do they come from telepathic stock? Will Vi's doomsday prediction come to pass? — but the real fissures are familial. Sittenfeld also manages, in the form of Kate's neighbors, to touch on the author's long-loved tensions between East Coast privilege and Midwestern practicality, between race and gender, between men and women.

The only major fault line of Sisterland comes in the form of Sittenfeld's cleanup crew tendencies. For a novel ostensibly about the future, it can get bogged down in flashbacks and backstory. Still, Sittenfeld is more of a Violet than a Kate — her gifts are in full effect with this novel, and she uses them to create a genuinely engrossing sense of uncertainty and suspense. Even when she herself knows precisely what the future will bring.

Sloane Crosley's latest book is How Did You Get This Number.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Curtis Sittenfeld made a name for herself in 2005 when she published the novel "Prep" about an angst-ridden scholarship student at a fancy boarding school. Then in 2008 came "American Wife." The main character was the first lady, loosely based on Laura Bush. Now, she's published a new novel: "Sisterland." Reviewer Sloane Crosley says in all three, what stands out is Sittenfeld's ability to enter the minds of her characters.

SLOANE CROSLEY: Here, the story is about a pair of psychic twin sisters in St. Louis. You might expect to hear narration from both sisters, but Sittenfeld doesn't do that. Instead, we only hear from one: Kate.

Kate first notices her senses as a kid. But after one particularly traumatic teenage sleepover involving a Ouija board and a popular girl, she starts to feel ashamed. A dark presence informs her of impending deaths and affairs and all sorts of things not fit for teenage brains. Kate is so frightened of her powers that she adopts a kind of keep-making-that-face-and-you'll-get-stuck-like-that mentality.

You see, the book Sittenfeld is writing is less about making psychics believable than about making psychic shame and embarrassment believable. OK. I know what you're thinking: Being a psychic is cool. Why shouldn't Kate come to embrace her powers? Well, Sittenfeld has an insurance policy for this doubt: the other sister.

Violet is less skittish than Kate. She's promiscuous, judgmental, overweight, embarrassing and occasionally offensive. She also makes her living as a professional psychic. She may not have a regular job or be able to drive a car, but at least she knows who she is, more or less.

When "Sisterland" opens, Violet has just gone on local TV, predicting a major earthquake. Vi's predictions threaten to unravel Kate's carefully manufactured world which, of course, was already unraveling before the book began.

Of course, "Sisterland" is more about sisters than psychics. The book's only major fault line is that Sittenfeld sometimes feels the need to act like a one-woman cleanup crew. She gets bogged down in flashback and back-story. Still, Sittenfeld puts her empathetic abilities to use here. She creates a genuinely engrossing sense of suspense even when she herself knows precisely what the future will bring.

SIEGEL: The novel is "Sisterland" by Curtis Sittenfeld. Our reviewer Sloane Crosley is the author of the essay collection "How Did You Get This Number." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.