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

Sisterland. Curtis Sittenfeld. Random. 400 pages. $27.
Sisterland. Curtis Sittenfeld. Random. 400 pages. $27.

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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