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

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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.