Sisters are identical, psychic — and very different in Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel


By Hannah Sampson

The most interesting thing about suburban St. Louis mom Kate Tucker is that she and her twin sister have psychic abilities.

The second most interesting thing about her — and the tension that drives Curtis Sittenfeld’s prickly, propulsive new novel — is that Kate is desperate to leave those powers behind, even as they are slightly less interested in leaving her.

So when her sister Violet, a professional medium, senses that a devastating earthquake is imminent (and announces it on the local news), Kate is torn between not wanting to believe and coming up with a possible date for the disaster herself.

Throughout the story, an older and wiser Kate narrates, occasionally rueing her youthful naïveté from her perch in hindsight-is-20/20-land. “...[t]hough my powers weren’t what they once had been, though I no longer considered myself truly psychic, I still should have been able to anticipate what would happen next.”

The twins were just 4 when the family learned they had “the senses,” and the realization soured their already distant mother. Middle school brought the ability to become popular by foretelling crushes, a ploy that inevitably backfired. Sittenfeld makes the twins’ experiences creepy but fascinating; what middle school girl would actually want to know which of her classmates at a sleepover would be the first to die?

By college, Kate, who grew up with the name Daisy, was eager to get away from her childhood reputation. She adopted a version of her middle name, Kathleen, a transformation that became complete years later when she took her husband’s last name. “If someone I knew from St. Louis told someone else at the university, ‘Did you know Daisy Shramm is a witch?’ I wanted the other person to say not ‘She is?’ but ‘Who?’ ”

The problem for Kate (and readers) is that the woman she became is unpleasant, whiny and insecure, a wife who gives her husband grief for going to a conference and leaving her with two small kids. Her husband Jeremy is bland and patronizing; Vi is brash and lacks boundaries, though she becomes more appealing as the book progresses.

In her previous books, Sittenfeld explored angst through the lens of a teenager in boarding school, a woman with daddy issues and a First Lady. While the author sometimes skimped on plot, she always painted a rich picture of her characters’ inner lives. In Sisterland, the story ticks along as earthquake day approaches — a convenient device that doesn’t quite pay off — but outside the complicated relationship between Vi and Kate, there is little emotional heft.

There are moments in the novel that offer a sense of what it could have been: a story of destiny vs. free will, an epic family saga, a complex portrayal of modern parenthood with a paranormal twist. Instead, Sisterland is a reasonably engrossing if less-than-stellar effort from an author who can do better — and we don’t need psychic powers to know this.

Hannah Sampson is a Miami Herald staff writer.

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