REVIEW: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

In brief: Vi and Kate are identical twins who have a psychic ability they call ‘senses’. In adulthood, Kate tries to be as normal as possible, while Vi embraces life as a medium. Then Vi goes viral for predicting an earthquake…

The good: It’s more the story of relationships than about psychic ability.

The not-so-good: Finishing it, knowing I have no more Curtis Sittenfeld novels to read on the shelf.

Why I chose it: Wanted to read a book by an author I like.

Year: 2013

Pages: 400

Publisher: Transworld (Penguin)

Setting: St Louis, USA

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Sisterland was the last Curtis Sittenfeld novel on my bookshelf. To be honest, I had held off buying this one because of the back cover blurb talking about senses and being psychic. (Also, I found the original Australian cover kind of creepy looking). That’s not really my scene, but after devouring later Sittenfeld books, I came back to this one. I’m glad I did. It’s not as spectacular as her later novels (e.g., Rodham, Eligible) but it’s still an excellent exploration of family and relationships in quiet domesticity.

Kate and Vi are identical twins but of course, their personalities are much different. The major thing that they have in common is that they have ‘senses’ – a type of psychic ability. They can’t see everything in the future, but they have glimpses. Vi embraces her senses, but Kate shuns hers as an adult. Kate tries desperately to fade into the wallpaper and do everything correctly, while Vi is happy to attract attention. When Vi predicts a major earthquake to hit St Louis, she makes national news and becomes an insta-celebrity. For Kate, this is the worst thing that could happen – and what if someone links her with Vi?

The story moves from the present with Kate’s relatively dull, but happy life with two small children to the twins’ life growing up. It describes how Kate felt awkward at school and used her senses to get in with the ‘cool crowd’. When she is burned by that, she retreats into being the most normal, bland person possible. Still her senses find their way into her normal life, but Kate is not willing to put up with them anymore. So when Vi becomes famous, it’s her worst nightmare. The differences between Vi and Kate are instantly recognisable as the ‘good’ and ‘bad twin. While Kate’s worrying could get annoying at times, Vi’s outlandish choices combined with her blunt honesty were much more refreshing. Kate’s retreat into absolutely average normality was an interesting way to hide from her shame at her family, but as the novel builds to its crescendo the reader finds that she isn’t too bad at breaking all the rules either. It’s not all Vi’s fault!

Even though a lot of the story is about the daily, ordinary life of a stay at home mother I found it very engrossing. The backstory of the twins’ childhood and early years and even the random things Kate’s daughter Rosie comes out with are really interesting. I understand I’m in the minority for liking this novel, but I enjoyed the combination of the ‘is she or isn’t she right’ of Vi’s prediction as well as the examination of all the relationships between parent and child, husband and wife. It’s a deep dive into the complexities and expectations of each party. The differences between Kate and husband Jeremy and their friends Hank and Courtney’s relationship was interesting to read, particularly when it similar situations for each couple arose. It’s detailed, mundane and yet completely engrossing. It’s not Sittenfeld’s best novel, but it’s still worth your time.


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