Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

The sign on Daisy and Violet Shramm’s bedroom door in their childhood home read: “Sisterland / Population 2 / Do NOT enter without permission.” The girls have had a special, insular relationship going far beyond the ties of sisterhood ever since the age of four, when they first became aware that they had “senses”: they knew before things happened that they were approaching, and serious things too (not just slowing the car when they knew a policeman was waiting around the corner) – deaths and accidents. They have always presumed their senses are genetic, passed on from their depressed, reclusive mother.

Now aged 34 in 2009, the sisters have gone their separate ways, a disjuncture symbolized by Daisy’s name change. During college she decided she wanted to be known as Kate, a shortening of her middle name, and she also made a conscious decision to quash her senses. Kate is married to Jeremy, an earth sciences professor, and has two young children. She gave up her job as a carer for the elderly when her daughter was young, and now lives an average suburban existence outside St. Louis, Missouri. If she sometimes questions the wisdom of her decisions, thinking resentfully of Jeremy’s colleague who warned her one could never have both children and a career, she is mostly happy in her identity as a stay-at-home mother.

Vi, however, has never settled for an ordinary life. She dropped out of college after just six weeks, working as a waitress for a long time until she started making enough money as a medium to consider that her profession. In the meantime she has also discovered that she is a lesbian, and starts dating Stephanie. When Kate questions her choice of a more ‘difficult’ lifestyle, Vi responds with vitriol against Kate’s safe middle class life: “Children are nothing but a problem people create and then congratulate themselves on solving…okay, that’s your right, but then other people can’t do what they want to because it’s too complicated?” Still, even when their lives seem to be on opposite trajectories, Kate suspects “no other person would ever understand me as my sister did.”

The sisters stop their petty squabbling when natural disaster comes close to home. The novel’s prologue set the scene by chronicling a series of major earthquakes in the Midwest in 1811-12. Now, in September 2009, a small earthquake hits St. Louis, and Vi quickly gets a sense that a bigger one is due. She publicly predicts an imminent earthquake season – though it is Kate, surprisingly, who fills in the precise date of October 16th, to the chagrin of her scientist husband. The earthquake story is quickly taken up by the national news media, with Vi interviewed twice for a national morning news programme, and Kate hires a publicity agent, at a cost of $15,000, to handle the media circus for them.

However, whether or not Vi’s earthquake prediction comes true ends up being far less important than the inter-workings of this peculiar family – especially as Kate and Jeremy’s friendship with their neighbours Courtney and Hank Wheeling, an interracial couple, deepens. It turns out October 16th will indeed be a catastrophic day for Kate, but in a much more personal sense.

Kate’s narration moves back and forth between the present day and the twins’ adolescence, showing the turning points in their relationship and in their understanding of the senses. Where Sittenfeld excels is in voicing an absolutely believable female, first-person subjectivity, especially when it comes to recreating adolescence and school days (as she did in her first novel, Prep); she also knows well the ways of introverts.

All the same, the storyline does not quite hang together here; if the novel came from any author other than Sittenfeld (whose style and voice I had already fallen in love with, through American Wife especially), I would probably have judged it more harshly. My main problem was with the development of Vi as a character: her self-deprecating manner (she refers to herself a “fat dyke”), crude speech and peculiar vocation make her somewhat akin to Edison Appaloosa in Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother – more of a caricature than a really three-dimensional character (though, of course, this might be Sittenfeld’s way of showing that even in the intimacy of a twin relationship, one can only ever see from one’s own perspective; everyone else remains peripheral and flat).

Also, it cannot be denied that the plot becomes rather melodramatic towards the end: “this was a situation from a soap opera,” Kate admits. Sittenfeld’s reflections on race relations in America are fairly basic, and her recordings of young children’s speech do not always sound very natural. Nonetheless, I enjoyed every moment spent in Kate and Violet’s company. I have always believed that Sittenfeld is good enough to be considered among the preeminent American novelists writing today, but she sells herself short by focusing on women’s concerns, thus earning the ‘chick lit’ label. When Prep came out, it was billed as Middlemarch crossed with Sweet Valley High, and Sittenfeld does indeed have the psychological, introspective depth of a George Eliot – she just needs a better vehicle for her talents next time.

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