Review: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

16099180Blurb:

From an early age, Kate and her identical twin sister, Violet, knew that they were unlike everyone else. Kate and Vi were born with peculiar “senses”—innate psychic abilities concerning future events and other people’s secrets. Though Vi embraced her visions, Kate did her best to hide them.

Now, years later, their different paths have led them both back to their hometown of St. Louis. Vi has pursued an eccentric career as a psychic medium, while Kate, a devoted wife and mother, has settled down in the suburbs to raise her two young children. But when a minor earthquake hits in the middle of the night, the normal life Kate has always wished for begins to shift. After Vi goes on television to share a premonition that another, more devastating earthquake will soon hit the St. Louis area, Kate is mortified. Equally troubling, however, is her fear that Vi may be right. As the date of the predicted earthquake quickly approaches, Kate is forced to reconcile her fraught relationship with her sister and to face truths about herself she’s long tried to deny.

Funny, haunting, and thought-provoking, Sisterland is a beautifully written novel of the obligation we have toward others, and the responsibility we take for ourselves. With her deep empathy, keen wisdom, and unerring talent for finding the extraordinary moments in our everyday lives, Curtis Sittenfeld is one of the most exceptional voices in literary fiction today.

Review:

It was with trepidation that I started Sisterland, the sole remaining unread Curtis Sittenfeld novel in my repertoire. The blurb promised identical twin sisters gifted in ESP, one of whom predicts a catastrophic earthquake in St. Louis, a scientifically and thus narratively improbable event that nevertheless serves as the story’s catalyst. For those unfamiliar with her work, Sittenfeld plays with extreme hyperrealism, observations so mundane that many readers deem her “boring” or statements so starkly true that readers find it “uncomfortable.” Sisterlandtherefore seemed like a wild gamble, the mysticism of the psychic main characters incompatible with her mechanical truthiness.

I was wrong. Sisterland is just as honest as her previous work, even as the ridiculous omen of the upcoming earthquake looms over the text. Here Sittenfeld dissects family relationships. She does so calmly, slowly, with lots of anesthetic. The result being an acutely painful awakening at the novel’s end when all the careful sutures she’s sewn come undone.

I adore when a writer challenges herself by creating a narrative obstacle that she can’t simply detour around or abracadabra away: she must go straight through it, even if us dullheaded readers can’t possibly see how she can. The earthquake, which has the possibility to fail entirely (if it happens, she’s supporting the existence of ESP in an otherwise realistic novel; if it doesn’t, she’s essentially inflated a massive balloon of anticipation for the readers and popped it with no ado) is wonderfully resolved—in a way that’s completely surprising but also makes you go “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Kate, the harried mother protagonist who has turned away from psychicness, is believable and sympathetic in her mistakes. She’s another one of those Sittenfeld characters that reminds us that people are messy and complex, and that it’s not easy to live sometimes but it’s so lovely to. The story alternates chapters: one in the past, one in the present leading up to the earthquake. This retrospective narration is particularly inspired in a story obsessed with seeing the future. By the end of the novel, we see that hindsight, not foresight, guides us onward. While we can hope for a future, we can know only the past.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld

22779Blurb:

Hannah Gavener is fourteen in the summer of 1991. In the magazines she reads, celebrities plan elaborate weddings; in Hannah’s own life, her parents’ marriage is crumbling. And somewhere in between these two extremes–just maybe–lie the answers to love’s most bewildering questions. But over the next decade and a half, as she moves from Philadelphia to Boston to Albuquerque, Hannah finds that the questions become more rather than less complicated: At what point can you no longer blame your adult failures on your messed-up childhood? Is settling for someone who’s not your soul mate an act of maturity or an admission of defeat? And if you move to another state for a guy who might not love you back, are you being plucky–or just pathetic?

None of the relationships in Hannah’s life are without complications. There’s her father, whose stubbornness Hannah realizes she’s unfortunately inherited; her gorgeous cousin, Fig, whose misbehavior alternately intrigues and irritates Hannah; Henry, whom Hannah first falls for in college, while he’s dating Fig; and the boyfriends who love her more or less than she deserves, who adore her or break her heart. By the time she’s in her late twenties, Hannah has finally figured out what she wants most–but she doesn’t yet know whether she’ll find the courage to go after it.

Full of honesty and humor, The Man of My Dreams is an unnervingly insightful and beautifully written examination of the outside forces and personal choices that make us who we are.

Review:

For a moment I thought that Curtis Sittenfeld was going to give me what I wanted: a happy ending. No ambiguities and no doubts. Just happiness for our anxious protagonist Hannah: a shared apartment, evenings entangled on the couch in front of the television, Sunday morning brunches followed by Sunday afternoon antique shopping, an engagement, a wedding, a child—all with the man of her dreams.

Thank god I was wrong. Because what I want is not what I need. I want a book to delight, to entertain, to promise me everything turns out okay. But I need a book to present questions and evade answers, to tell its story not in the shape of a line but a dodecahedron, to venture into the dark and never come out. In short, a book must deny me what I want.

In The Man of My Dreams Hannah is no reader’s ideal narrator. A grown-up Lee Fiora from Sittenfeld’s Prep, Hannah is shy and uneasy, world-weary yet inexperienced, not unable but unwilling to escape what ails her. Sittenfeld’s narrators are hard to get to know and harder to appreciate. Timid girls, they all trick themselves into ignoring the depth of their loneliness and the intensity of their embarrassments. Normally she writes in the third person at the most uncomfortable distance—far enough away that the narrator’s thoughts and decisions remain elusive and irrational, but close enough that the narrator’s failings and ugliness reflect right back onto you.

Yet despite how uncomfortable the narration is, Hannah is a fantastic protagonist. We’ve all already read the novels about girls like Hannah’s sister Allison, a thoroughly decent girl who marries a thoroughly decent man to form a thoroughly decent couple, and girls like her cousin Fig, the bombshell, the debauched girl who buzzes with confidence as she hooks up with one frat boy, and then another, and then another, and then another. But Hannah’s story is one less frequently told, either shoved away in a forgotten bookshelf corner or merely sidekicking in a story about the popular, wonderful girl who gets all the dates she wants. Hannah is a nasty girl, quiet on the outside but screaming on the inside. She screams for someone to care about her, to kiss her, to want her, to simply see her. But internal screams are silent; no man of her dreams will ever rescue her. What Hannah learns is to rescue herself. And fittingly, it’s not a lesson she wants to learn but a lesson she needs to learn.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

2807199Blurb:

On what might become one of the most significant days in her husband’s presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House–and the repercussions of a life lived, as she puts it, “almost in opposition to itself.”

A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. But a tragic accident when she was seventeen shattered her identity and made her understand the fragility of life and the tenuousness of luck. So more than a decade later, when she met boisterous, charismatic Charlie Blackwell, she hardly gave him a second look: She was serious and thoughtful, and he would rather crack a joke than offer a real insight; he was the wealthy son of a bastion family of the Republican party, and she was a school librarian and registered Democrat. Comfortable in her quiet and unassuming life, she felt inured to his charms. And then, much to her surprise, Alice fell for Charlie.

As Alice learns to make her way amid the clannish energy and smug confidence of the Blackwell family, navigating the strange rituals of their country club and summer estate, she remains uneasy with her newfound good fortune. And when Charlie eventually becomes President, Alice is thrust into a position she did not seek–one of power and influence, privilege and responsibility. As Charlie’s tumultuous and controversial second term in the White House wears on, Alice must face contradictions years in the making: How can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? How complicit has she been in the trajectory of her own life? What should she do when her private beliefs run against her public persona?

Review:

Much like the protagonists of her novels American Wife and Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld, and her writing, are interesting, though interesting in a very quiet way. On the surface her work is unassuming: a charming combination of chick-lit and literary fiction. But after finishing American Wife I believe her work is more complicated than it initially appears. Sittenfeld doesn’t commit to telling the most thrilling story but she does commit to respectfully recording the mundane events of a mundane person’s mundane daily life—and as a result, she shows that no one’s life is truly mundane.

I have so much love for this unshowy style. So often I feel deafened by how loud people are yelling to get their voices heard in today’s world. But I can count on Sittenfeld for small but poignant renderings of unremarkable girls’ daily lives. Unfortunately in American Wife, she loses the essence of her story. Instead of always magnifying on Alice, the unabashedly normal Midwestern girl who will remarkably become First Lady of the United States, the story focuses too much on Charlie, her husband and future Leader of the Free World. This broader scope weakens the novel because sometimes it doesn’t feel like Alice’s story but merely a story in which she plays a large role.

Alice’s character is based on Laura Bush (indeed, my post-reading Wikipedia research shows that Ms. Bush inspired this novel a lot); thus her husband is modeled on the infamous George W. Bush. Unfortunately, it follows the Bush saga too closely. I would have preferred a simple fictional vivisection of First Lady life because the similarities to real life were eerie and distracting. It was impossible to view the characters as merely fictional creatures; I kept seeing Alice as Alice-cum-Laura Bush and Charlie as Charlie-cum-Mr. President-George W. Bush.

Like her debut novel Prep, American Wife is a lesson in passivity. It’s a very feminist book without proclaiming itself as such, suggesting that the people who might best lead a country—in this case, women: whose inferior position has taught them compassion—will never run a campaign for that very reason. We also see, again, how being white, rich and male in America can grant you your every wish. Conversely we see how fundamentally unfair it is to be a wife. A wife compromises herself for love; she repeatedly bends her wishes to accommodate her husband. The opposite is never true, however.

But most of all, Sittenfeld teaches us to respect complexity. Contradictions—within a country, within a family, within ourselves—are inevitable. In her quiet way, she doesn’t advocate a solution to these contradictions. She doesn’t take a position. She simply points her finger towards mundanely complex things we see everyday and never notice. How wonderful it is to notice them.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

342081Blurb:

Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel, Prep, is an insightful, achingly funny coming-of-age story as well as a brilliant dissection of class, race, and gender in a hothouse of adolescent angst and ambition.

Lee Fiora is an intelligent, observant fourteen-year-old when her father drops her off in front of her dorm at the prestigious Ault School in Massachusetts. She leaves her animated, affectionate family in South Bend, Indiana, at least in part because of the boarding school’s glossy brochure, in which boys in sweaters chat in front of old brick buildings, girls in kilts hold lacrosse sticks on pristinely mown athletic fields, and everyone sings hymns in chapel.

As Lee soon learns, Ault is a cloistered world of jaded, attractive teenagers who spend summers on Nantucket and speak in their own clever shorthand. Both intimidated and fascinated by her classmates, Lee becomes a shrewd observer of–and, ultimately, a participant in–their rituals and mores. As a scholarship student, she constantly feels like an outsider and is both drawn to and repelled by other loners. By the time she’s a senior, Lee has created a hard-won place for herself at Ault. But when her behavior takes a self-destructive and highly public turn, her carefully crafted identity within the community is shattered.

Ultimately, Lee’s experiences–complicated relationships with teachers; intense friendships with other girls; an all-consuming preoccupation with a classmate who is less than a boyfriend and more than a crush; conflicts with her parents, from whom Lee feels increasingly distant, coalesce into a singular portrait of the painful and thrilling adolescence universal to us all.

Review:

When I went to college I was shocked to meet kids who had actually attended boarding school. I had grown up on a steady diet of boarding school literature, but conceptually, it seemed so preposterous. You went to boarding school if you were European and from the 19th century, not if you were American and born in the early 90s. I befriended one girl who attended a Massachusetts boarding school as a day student. When I asked her about the experience, she shook her head and said, “Never send your kids to boarding school. It screws you up.”

As I came to know more ex-boarding school students, her generalization gained credence. They were fully formed adults who behaved like they were in their late 20s. Meanwhile, the rest of us floundered about, worried about breaking dorm occupancy rules. After reading Prep I understand them better. I know how they came to be this way at the mere age of 18. In Prep Curtis Sittenfeld presents an authentic portrait of boarding school life that, for any sane parent at least, should serve as a massive flashing warning sign before sending any child away to school.

Our protagonist Lee Fiora decides to apply to an East Coast boarding school in a fit of precociousness and derring-do at the age of 14. She leaves her parents and calm Midwestern existence for a more exciting life at Ault School. Again: at the age of 14. It goes horribly, of course. She must face the gender, race, and class discrimination that props up the ivy-covered brick façade of Ault. She navigates loneliness. She struggles to answer this question: do I want to change myself, peel away my me-ness in order to fit into this archaic institution or do I want to alienate myself from everyone by becoming a conscientious objector to this lifestyle? She narrates her four years at Ault after the fact as an adult, and it is clear that even after maturing outside this fishbowl, she has no good answer to this question.

Two disclaimers:
1. This is not chick-lit, despite the title and pink belted cover.
2. It is an uncomfortable read.

If we’re supposed to read this book as chick-lit, it’s ridiculously marketed. It has too much bite to be considered chick-lit, with its extraordinarily detailed narration and its casual indictment of its wealthy and waspy characters. Lee’s perspective is devastatingly realistic, apparently so authentic that some have questioned how biographical this story is. Most reviews for this book are quite negative. Many people seem to hate Lee because she is always a bystander and never an actor. I must admit that even as an introvert, I found Lee’s introversion and resulting passivity infuriating and occasionally painful. She cannot decide how she wants to participate in this ridiculous life she’s accidentally chosen for herself at age 14 and thus she’s listless. She moves nowhere, being careful to make no obvious mistakes but because of that, truly making every mistake. As she says,

I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.

Teenagers live in state of metamorphosis and high school is their chrysalis. Imagine if your chrysalis is inhabited by the spoiled offspring of Manhattanite bankers and national senators. Imagine if the floral pattern on your bedspread determines whether you are popular or not. Imagine that if you pine after a boy, you can never approach him; he will pursue, you will be pursued. Imagine if your chrysalis cannot be cracked open at the end of each school day when you return home; you must live among your peers in this extreme environment for four straight years.

Actually stop imagining that because it’s horrifying. It’s obvious how such a life could ruin a mere child. How can you decide who you want to be in such conditions? I loved Sittenfeld’s largely plotless but wholly profound depiction of these conditions because it allowed me to vicariously live them without suffering their consequences.

And after the melancholy final page, I was forcefully reminded me of three things: 1. we can only hope we have good parents 2. only by being rich, white, and male can you live your life effortlessly 3. boarding school will screw you up.

4 out of 5 stars