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

Show Hide image

Ariana and the Arianators: "We really are like a family"

The pop star provides her fans with a chance to express themselves joyfully - their targeting was grimly predictable.

Ariana Grande’s concert at Manchester Arena on 22 May began like any other. Children and teenagers streamed through the doors wearing pink T-shirts, rubber wristbands and animal ears (one of Grande’s signature looks). They screamed when she came on stage and they sang along with every song. It was only once the music had ended, and the 20,000-strong audience began to leave the venue, that the horror began – with a bomb detonated at the main entrance.

The show was just one date on Grande’s Dangerous Woman tour, which began in Phoenix, Arizona in February, moved across the United States and Europe, and had stops scheduled for South America, Japan, Australia and Hong Kong. (Since the Manchester attack, Grande has suspended the tour indefinitely.)

Since releasing her debut album in 2013, Grande has successfully transitioned from teen idol to fully fledged pop star (all three of her studio albums have sold over a million each) with a combination of baby-faced beauty and Mariah Carey-style, breathy vocals. Her most popular records are bubblegum pop with a Nineties R’n’B influence, a combination also expressed in her fashion choices: Nineties grunge meets pastel pinks.

She entered the limelight at 16 on the children’s TV programme Victorious, which ran on the Nickelodeon channel, pursuing her musical ambitions by performing the show’s soundtracks. Many of the young people who grew up watching her as the red-haired arts student Cat Valentine on Victorious would become fans of her pop career – or, as they call themselves, the Arianators.

As she outgrew her child-star status, Grande’s lyrics became more sexually suggestive. Recent songs such as “Side to Side” and “Everyday” are more explicit than any of her previous hits. She has repeatedly insisted that young women should be able to speak openly about sex and feel empowered, not objectified.

“Expressing sexuality in art is not an invitation for disrespect,” she tweeted in December. “We are not objects or prizes. We are QUEENS.”

Grande also has a reputation as something of a gay icon. She has advertised her records on the gay dating app Grindr, headlined shows at Pride Week in New York, and released a single and a lipstick to raise money for LGBTQ charities.

Cassy, a 19-year-old film student and fan, told me the fanbase is “made mostly of young women from 14-23, but I run into guys and non-binary fans all the time.”

“It’s pretty well known that Ariana has got a LGBTQ+ fan base. She’s so outspoken about it and that’s what draws us to her. Because she’s accepting of everyone, no matter who you are.”

Like many child actresses-turned-pop star, Grande has a fan base skewed towards the young and female: teenage and pre-teen girls are by far the majority of her most dedicated supporters. A writer on the Phoenix New Times described the typical Ariana Grande crowd as “pre-tween, tweens, teens, young gay (and fabulous) men, moms with cat ears, and multiple candidates for father of the year”. The Arianators form tight-knit groups on social media. I spoke to several over Twitter after the attack.

Arena concerts, which often have more relaxed age restrictions than nightlife venues, have long been a safe space for children, young people and teenage girls. They provide a secure place for concert-goers to dress up, experiment, play with burgeoning sexualities, dance, scream and cry: to flirt with an adult life still slightly out of reach. Glitter-streaked tears stream down the unapologetic faces of fans touched by an emotion bigger than themselves. It is appalling, if grimly predictable, to see children, teenage girls and young gay men targeted by agents of regressive ideologies for expressing themselves so joyfully. On 23 May, Isis claimed the attack.

“I went to my very first Ariana concert on 9 April,” Cassy tells me. “It was one of the warmest places I’ve ever been. People were so happy, smiles just beaming from their faces. People were being themselves – if that meant showing up in drag, they did. It was such an amazing place to be.”

Andréa, a 17-year-old fan from France, told me about her first experience of a Grande concert. “It was incredible,” she said. “Everyone was so kind, excited and happy. We really are like a family.”

The fans are devastated by Monday’s bombing. Thousands of messages appeared on social media to commemorate those who lost their lives. “As an Arianator,” Alexandre, aged 16, told me, “I’m really sad and I’m scared.”

“We’re all taking it really hard,” Cassy said. “We’re a family and we lost 22 members of that family last night.”

Ariana began her gig in Manchester with the song that has opened every night of her current tour: “Be Alright”. In it, she repeatedly reassures the crowd, “We’re gonna be all right.” It’s a phrase that her fans are clinging to after the attack. So, too, are the lyrics of “Better Days”, by Grande and her support act Victoria Monét, which was also performed the night of the explosion. “There’s a war right outside our window,” the words go. “I can hear the sirens . . ./I can hear the children crying . . ./I’m hoping for better days . . .”

“It’s hit us all very hard because we’ve lost some of our own,” said one Arianator who runs a popular Twitter account about the tour. “People we interacted with on a daily basis. People that just wanted to have a night of fun. These are dark times, but we are looking forward to better days.”

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

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496