Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld: A modern American fable about the danger of tempting fate

In her latest novel, Curtis Sittenfeld depicts the tedium of modern motherhood a little too well - a gamble she has taken before, but has consistently paid off.

Sisterland
Curtis Sittenfeld
Doubleday, 416pp, £16.99
 
Near the beginning of Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, the twin sisters Violet and Kate are having a fight. Kate, the devoted mother of two small children, is listening with some asperity to what she feels is a deliberate provocation from her free-spirited sister, who announces with studied insouciance that she has begun dating women. While insisting that her resistance to this idea is not homophobic, Kate informs Violet that choosing to be gay will make her life more complicated, especially if she decides she wants children. Violet, who dropped out of university and lives a defiantly unconventional life, is unimpressed by her sister’s frustration at the “sheer choreography” entailed in caring full-time for a baby and a toddler. She tells Kate: “Children are nothing but a problem people create and then congratulate themselves on solving.”
 
This idea, to which Kate returns later in the novel, might be said to comprise the leitmotif of Sisterland: it is about the consequences of self-created problems and the risks of self-fulfilling prophecies. In order to explore these ideas, Sittenfeld bestows upon Kate and Violet psychic powers – what their family calls “the senses” – which become a metaphor for questions about the relationship between choice and destiny. This is a bold, romantic move for Sittenfeld to make in a novel that otherwise seems to find satisfaction in undiluted realism, cataloguing the quotidian details of ordinary American life with near-anthropological interest.
 
The book is narrated by Kate and before long it appears that the almost fetishistic listing of her daily activities – from feeding her children and burping the baby to errandrunning and playground activities – is Kate’s protective ritual: the consolations of the mundane in a life straightjacketed by its efforts to ward off the demons of misrule.
 
Kate has embraced suburban normality in an attempt to repudiate her psychic powers, which she has viewed since adolescence as dark and disturbing. At high school, she has the frightening ability to intuit which of her classmates would die youngest and realises that a girl’s boyfriend is cheating. (This proves awkward for Kate, as it turns out that Violet is the person with whom he is cheating.) When their classmates realise that Kate and Violet have these intuitions, the twins are branded as witches. Kate goes off to university, determined to reinvent herself: she changes her name from Daisy and settles into sorority life and serial monogamy.
 
By 2009, Kate is happily married to a kind, intelligent man who teaches geophysics at the local university and she is facing two problems that shape the novel. First, Kate is a deeply anxious, solipsistic mother, obsessed with her children’s safety and torn between devotion to them and self-pity over the way they dominate her life. Second, Violet has had a premonition and announces that she believes St Louis will be rocked by a devastating earthquake. (This is roughly equivalent to making the same prediction for, say, Kent.) Despite its improbability, Kate thinks her sister might be right, for she has her own impression of an impending disaster. Violet decides to make her fears public to warn the community, although Kate suspects that her motives are also commercial, as she scrapes together a living as a clairvoyant. The media pick up on the story and soon their lives have become a circus, while Kate and her husband find themselves at odds over whether he has ever accepted the reality of the sisters’ gifts. Kate is both embarrassed by her sister’s notoriety and afraid that an earthquake will devastate her family.
 
Sittenfeld cross-cuts Kate’s anxiety as the fateful day approaches with flashbacks of her adolescence with Violet, as they grow up with a depressed mother who dies young and an affectionate but distant father. While fixating on her children, Kate also tries to take care of – if not control –Violet and their father, who make varying demands on her time and attention. And she spends a great deal of time with Hank, a stay-at-home father whose wife is a colleague of Kate’s husband at the university. Gradually, her anger and resentment, suppressed since high school, begin to simmer to the surface.
 
It is only through the glimpses we get of Violet – flamboyant, intelligent, defiant – that Sittenfeld suggests there might be a life less ordinary in the margins of this book. The risk Sisterland runs is the affective slippage that can happen with any rebarbative subject in fiction, when the novel becomes infected by the flaws of its protagonist. The trick of the dramatic irony in which Sittenfeld specialises is to ensure that there is a discernible gap between, for example, a story about stupid people and a stupid story or a story about boredom and a boring story. As is the case in all of Sittenfeld’s fiction, her characters are neither stupid nor boring but Kate is perhaps the most riskily tiresome of her protagonists, a woman blind to her shortcomings but without the redemptive charm of self-deceptive characters such as Jane Austen’s Emma.
 
Sittenfeld may depict the tedium of young motherhood a little too well for readers in search of entertainment. This is a gamble that she has taken before and it’s paid off, in novels from her debut, Prep, about a girl trying to fit in at a competitive boarding school, to American Wife, her widely acclaimed portrait of a young woman who grows up be First Lady Laura Bush in all but name.
 
In Sisterland, Sittenfeld throws in a plot twist that is, as Kate says, “a situation from a soap opera”. The problem is not only that what happens to Kate is improbable but that the woman we have come to know is precisely the person who would never make the choice that drives the story to its conclusion. The shift from the all-too-believable to the implausible is too abrupt but the questions it raises about self-fulfilling prophecies remain compelling. In the end, Sisterland is a modern American fable about tempting fate and in it Sittenfeld shows that she is willing to practise what she preaches.
Tempting fate: The novelist Curtis Sittenfeld. Photograph: Artz/Laid/Camera Press.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

BBC
Show Hide image

Anthony Horowitz’s New Blood is the most accurate portrayal of London millennial life on TV

 “Do you know how hard we work? How little we earn? This city never gives you any chances.”

The police procedural is hardly the most cutting edge televisual format, burdened as it is by generic clichés and tired characters. But every now and then, one comes along attempting to do something new with an old format – from Life on Mars to Happy Valley. The latest effort is the BBC’s New Blood. Created by Anthony Horowitz, it follows two (extremely handsome) junior investigators, both second-generation immigrants in their early twenties living in London: Arash Sayyad (Ben Tavassoli), working for the Met, and Stefan Kowolski (Mark Strepan), who works for the Serious Fraud Office.

On the surface, there is nothing revolutionary about this programme – it has all the usual hallmarks of its genre. Stefan and Rash dislike each other at first, but find circumstance thrusts them together on numerous unlikely occasions – who woulda thunk these two oddballs would become partners in crime prevention!!! Both have older bosses who raise exasperated eyebrows at their unconventional but often effective methods. Each work on cases at first, seemingly unrelated to one another, but each time slowly are revealed to be intertwined.

But there is something slightly strange about this programme that’s apparent from the very first episode. As Radio Times critic Huw Fullerton wrote in his review of the show’s opening case, New Blood is “obsessed” with the London property market:

“Throughout the first few episodes lead characters Stefan and Rash regularly suspend their investigations into murder and corruption to fret about getting on the housing ladder, the rights they have to fixed rent and the logistics of getting a mortgage on a low salary.  Even one of the series’ villains couldn’t resist getting in on the property action, evilly swilling a glass of wine and threatening his niece with eviction from her rent-free Zone 1 flat if she didn’t keep supplying him with illicit information.”

“I know how hard it is for young professionals in London,” the villain in question purrs. “House prices are ridiculous.” And as further cases have unfolded, including last night’s finale, this streak has only become more extreme. Some of the series most significant events are motivated by people hoping to preserve the value of their luxurious central properties; Rash’s sister gives him the details of a potential room in Wandsworth as a kind of present; Stefan and Rash are thrown together by their shared desperate need to find somewhere affordable to live. One of the highest-octane moments of the series’s final episode involves an action montage of the pair running across London after a traumatic car accident to make their scheduled time for a flat viewing. It’s almost laughable.

But it’s not just property that drives the characters and plots on New Blood. It’s all the concerns of millennial life in London – immigration levels, transport, the environment, isolation and mental health. Stefan and Rash cycle to their insecure jobs (both are constantly being fired) and undercover meetings with big pharma bosses and property developers, trying to right the great wrongs of the city. Stefan uses his Polish language abilities to communicate with the low-paid workers often exploited by the villains of each case – one of whom says to him, “Do you know how hard we work? How little we earn? This city never gives you any chances.”

Debates about high-rise developments and corporate greed nestle in with chatty dialogue about being underpaid, unappreciated and undermined by the city. Even the deaths seem to play on urban anxieties: a man tumbles to his death from an E3 tower block, while a woman suffers a fatal fall from a tall escalator at an underground station, her death calmly declared in an announcement that continues, “There is a good service on all other lines.”

The result is an overly earnest but surprisingly accurate portrait of a certain kind of young professional in London – the only thing that stopped me laughing at the constant overwrought references the housing crisis was thinking of how much of my own brain-space is dedicated to thinking about rent, and how much I talk about it as a result.

It also means the show has a refreshing take on villains – there are no stereotypical lone-wolf terrorists or crazed spurned women here. Instead, Stefan and Rash repeatedly attempt to arrest the uber-rich and powerful: criminals who can hide behind facades of legitimacy and wealth. The show’s very premise – the Serious Fraud Office and the police teaming up to form a heroic young double act – rests on the idea that the city’s greatest injustices are made by corporations and corrupt governments hoping to fleece the ordinary individuals that live there.

Many reviewers have criticised the show for being too on-the-nose in its urban criticisms, but for me that’s where the hilarity and the joy of this show lies. Where else could the line, “You wouldn’t want that, any more than you would want to lose this flat” be delivered with such delicious venom?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.