Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Weird Sisters

There are a lot of reasons I felt I had to read Eleanor's Brown's new novel The Weird Sisters sooner rather than later. There's the fact that she has said the college is a combination of Kenyon and Oberlin. There was Eleanor saying that she must have gone into the future to write it (as she said, the author's got my name, it's about where I grew up, and they talk in literary tropes like we do). And then there were Kim's "5 Reasons You Should Read The Weird Sisters."

But the book didn't live up to my expectations. The most interesting thing about it is the way it's told, as if the three sisters could share each others' thoughts. Still, the use of the archaic definition of the word "weird" as "fate" to define the sisters just doesn't work for me. Maybe it's because I don't have a sister and am not infrequently irritated by the cutesy way some of my friends and relatives have taught their daughters to act with each other (a problem with relating to the characters in this book that my own daughter will share), but I don't understand or much like the whole premise about how a sister's life is defined by her place in the birth order and her role as a sister.

Brown is a good storyteller, and she gets a lot of the details about a small, college town just right. Things are just too tidy in the story, though. What she misses are the rivalries and small, petty annoyances that grow inevitably between proud, intelligent people who have to rub elbows with each other for too many years. All of the small-town folks in The Weird Sisters are pleasant and welcoming to the sisters when they come back home. They offer them jobs and food and love. Not one reveals any festering jealousy from way back when.

The plot is fairly standard chick-lit fare (when I described it to a friend of mine who is a tenured professor at Kenyon, she called it "highbrow chick lit"). One sister realizes, towards the end of the novel, that her mother, a homemaker (there's an accurate detail; there are more of those in small college towns than in the world in general) was probably more self-actualized by cooking, gardening and reading than she would have been by getting a job. I do love this passage:
"Barnwell is full of people like our mother, married to spouses who dragged them to the middle of a cornfield and set off for the academic races with no more than a kiss and a cheerful exhortation to go ahead and build a life for themselves in the middle of nothing."

Despite the fact that I really don't like any of the characters--the thieving, adulterous sister, the blindly ambitious one, or the apathetic hippie wanna-be--I do like some of the ways they relate to the world. They think it's natural to always have a book with you, as does almost everyone I know. And they have one of the most satisfying answers to the perennial "How do you have time to read" question that I've heard in a while:
"Because I don't spend hours flipping through cable complaining there's nothing on? Because my entire Sunday is not eaten up with pre-game, in-game, and post-game talking heads? Because I do not spend every night drinking overpriced beer and engaging in dick-swinging contests with the other financirati? Because when I am waiting in line, at the gym, on the train, eating lunch, I am not complaining about the wait/staring into space/admiring myself in available reflective surfaces?"

Readers will like this book, and women with sisters will like it even better. I like it for its description of the dynamics of a family which "has always communicated its deepest feelings through the words of a man who has been dead for almost four hundred years," although I do find this fictional family's adherence to quoting only one author oddly narrow.

Perhaps I expected too much from this book. If I had gone into it thinking it would be like a new novel from Jennifer Crusie or Weiner, I'd have been pleasantly surprised.


Anna said...

This does sound interesting and nothing like what I expect from "chick lit." I love the passage you included about making time to read. I read while I'm waiting on the train platform and at the bus stop and pretty much everywhere and it really does make the wait seem shorter.

bermudaonion said...

Sorry this missed the mark for you.

FreshHell said...

The paragraph about reading I love. I might have to read this, coming from a family of sisters. The only thing I'd add to that passage you quoted is that I don't spend time trolling the internet or texting on a handheld device in public. Because I do not have one. I have, instead, a book. :)

kittiesx3 said...

Kent and I text all the time, but I'm also a reader. The Kindle makes that possible for me with all the travel (know you dislike e-books, Jeanne but it's the only viable option for me).

This book sounds horrible to me, got to say. Although I do have sisters, we are far apart in age and while I love them both, I have friends I feel like I'm a lot closer to--those are the people I would turn to when the shit hits the fan because they know me, warts and all, and love me anyway.

I do like getting the vicarious look through your book review though.

Anonymous said...


Jodie said...

It sounds like one with lots of individual bits to quote at least, but not the whole package it seems.

Florinda said...

Thank you for the "meh" review I've been waiting to see for this novel :-). I've gotten the impression the story is largely "chick lit," which is why all the raves have taken me aback just a bit. However, I think you balanced your review quite well, and one of the points you brought out would probably make me more likely to read it: I'm one of two sisters, and that is a large part of my self-definition.

And "weird"="fate"? I had no idea.

Avid Reader said...

I've been seeing this one pop up everywhere and I'm curious to read it, but I'm also worried that it's been overly-hyped. It's good to read a balanced review. If I pick it up now I think my expectations will be a bit more tempered.

Teresa said...

I had the same impression of this book that Florinda did and wasn't at all interested until I started seeing glowing reviews everywhere (plus a good story on NPR), and I started to doubt my initial impressions and think maybe I should read the book. It's kind of a relief to be able to add your review to the reasons not to bother.

Jenny said...

I like the passage you quote, and also feel frustrated at the ubiquitous(and weird) dichotomy that supposedly exists, of readers and sports-watchers. I believed in this dichotomy for years and missed out on awesome football-watching I could have been doing. Instead of snubbing it because I was a reader.

Nymeth said...

Ha - I do like that answer. But the dichotomy Jenny mentions IS weird. I often wonder if some people aren't scared off reading because in their mental map there's no overlap between the concepts of "reading" and "having other interests".

Jeanne said...

Anna, there's probably no real definition of "chick lit," but I tend to think of it as fiction about women for women. Kind of like designating a book as YA if it has a teen protagonist.

Kathy,it didn't entirely--but I think the mark was set too high.

FreshHell, I'd be interested to hear what you think about it, as a sister.

Elizabeth, I don't dislike e-books; what I dislike is having authors send me an electronic manuscript that I have to read on my laptop screen. If I were more fully employed, I'd probably buy an e-reader.

ReadersGuide, you'd be diverted by the glimpse of Gambier!

Jodie, I had to quote my favorite bits, as usual.

Florinda, it does make me wonder, again, about the obligation we feel to bend over backwards when we're conscious that our audience includes those we're beholden to, even for as small a thing as a free book.

Avid Reader, I do think you might like it if you don't expect too much.

Teresa, I definitely wouldn't classify this one as a must-read.

Jenny, not coming from a watching-sports family, I never even realized this, but as an adult I've learned to happily watch baseball games. It helps that generally it's hot weather when I go, and I love hot weather!

Nymeth, I never really thought of that before. It seems like a good thing for teachers to consider!

Kailana said...

I am very curious about this book. I am worried that all the reviews I am seeing are going to ruin my experience, though...

Jeanne said...

Kailana, the blog tour has made some people feel like they've read a lot about it... and then I went and added to that. It's a pleasant enough novel, and I'll bet a lot of people will be taking it to the beach this summer.

Trapunto said...

This post instantly made me think of Fred Astaire and Danny Kaye singing "Sisters" in White Christmas: "Lord help the mister, that gets between me and my sister. Lord help the sister that gets between me and my man." Brr.

Jeanne said...

Trapunto, I just saw White Christmas in Chicago this winter, and it was fun. The other sister song I tend to think of, though, is "I can't do it alone" from Chicago.