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.

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

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Here I Am marks a departure from Jonathan Safran Foer's usual style

Safran Foer is as known for his character as for his works. What a shame, when Here I Am is such a mature, multilayered novel.

Why is it that some novelists attract a certain kind of fame? They are marked out from the crowd as representative of something (it hardly matters what that something is) and examined and analysed and discussed. Generally, writers make poor fodder for gossip columns, but, on occasion, that is where they find themselves, and it can be all too easy to forget why we cared about them in the first place.

Jonathan Safran Foer is one of those writers. Since his debut, Everything Is Illuminated, published 14 years ago when he was 25, his person has been as much an object of  scrutiny as his books. Which is a shame, as the books are remarkable in their own right. They haven’t always succeeded completely (his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is sabotaged by its mannered intellectual fireworks), but then very good novelists need to fail if, finally, they are to become great novelists. In 2010, through the London-based Visual Editions, Foer (who has a fascination with the collage artist Joseph Cornell) published Tree of Codes, a wonderful book that cut out pieces of text from Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create both a new text and a work of art. He has ranged beyond fiction, too, producing Eating Animals – about how we decide what we eat and the moral underpinnings of those choices – and, with Nathan Englander, a New American Haggadah. Here I Am, his first novel in 11 years, may not be the work that converts the sceptics, but it is terrific.

Its opening might lead the reader to believe that Foer is setting off on the path of dystopian fiction: but that’s not the way this story goes. “When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home.” Perhaps it’s not quite as eye-popping as Anthony Burgess’s opener to Earthly Powers – “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me” – but it is arresting nonetheless. And while the political landscape of the Middle East has a role to play, that is not the true focus of Here I Am. Instead, Foer shifts quickly to Isaac Bloch’s grandson Jacob, who is a writer, and his wife, Julia, an architect. It is the distillation and dissolution of their marriage, the way they think about it, the effect this has on their three sons, Sam, Max and Benjy, which are the heart of the book.

As for the destruction of Israel, Foer gets to that about halfway through this long narrative. The über-manly Tamir, a cousin of Jacob’s, lives there but comes to visit Jacob and his family in the United States. While he is staying, a huge earthquake strikes Israel; the destruction caused by the quake provokes war in the Middle East. Watching the horror on television, Tamir says to Jacob: “You need to come home.” But Jacob thinks he is home – in Washington, where he lives. To Tamir, “home” for Jews, however secular, must always be Israel. The war forces Jacob to test this proposition against his personal beliefs.

Foer juxtaposes news bulletins of start­ling drama – as when “Israel declares war ‘against all of those seeking to destroy the Jewish state’” – with Jacob’s navel-gazing anxiety over the role he ought to play in that war. Jacob insists to Tamir that the earthquake is a geological, not a political catastrophe. “Nothing is not political,” Tamir replies, quite correctly. Jacob’s solipsism is annoying, but surely that’s the point. His quest is to understand where he belongs – in what family, in which set of people – and whether any of those ideas has any meaning in the abstract, or whether it is only the details of each individual relationship which finally make up a life.

In his previous novels, Foer poured his energy into language, his characters serving his powers of creation rather than the other way round. This time Foer – coming up to 40, a father-of-two, now separated from his own wife – has shifted his focus to a hyperreal observation of the minutiae of family life which is truthful and often heartbreaking. The pleasure of Here I Am lies in being allowed to see what is usually invisible, the tiny moments of life that go unremarked upon because they are unremarkable. At Jacob and Julia’s wedding, Jacob’s mother had wished for the couple to know each other “in sickness and in sickness”. Life is not spectacular; there is only wonder in the ordinary. “Don’t seek or expect miracles,” she told them. “There are no miracles. Not anymore. And there are no cures for the hurt that hurts most. There is only the medicine of believing each other’s pain, and being present for it.”

Foer expresses that presence by demonstrating that the smallest moments have significance, if the person experiencing that moment is truly present. Along the way, he builds something that is both structurally bold and emotionally complex – and often extremely funny (Sam’s discovery of masturbation leaves Portnoy in the dust).

“Here I am,” says Abraham to God before God asks for the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. “I’m ready,” says Jacob at the very end of this mature novel: simple words to express a multilayered and satisfying journey. 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood