I like a novel that creates its own weather: Atmosphere and disturbance make prime conditions for extended reading. Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Sisterland” begins with a couple of earthquakes around St. Louis, nearly 200 years apart. It’s an arresting opening, a panorama: “In some places, the ground split apart and flung up water, sand, and rocks, entire trees it had swallowed shortly before, and in turn it devoured horses and cows.” Then, “clocks stopped in Natchez, chimneys collapsed in Louisville, and church bells rang in Boston.”
“Sisterland” is a long story of shake-ups: eerie precognitions, seismic shifts, lapses in fidelity. Like life itself, it graphs both the agonizing longueurs of domestic life and the horrific thrill of sudden disasters.
Sittenfeld, the author of three previous best-selling novels, “Prep,” “The Man of My Dreams” and “American Wife,” handles the materials of family drama (aging parents, problem pregnancies, stalled careers, sexual temptation) so skillfully that in spite of the building expectation of the seismic metaphor, the ending still comes as a surprise.
What’s most captivating about “Sisterland” is the intimate, intense portrayal of identical twin sisters with psychic powers, which they call “senses.” As children, Violet Shramm and Kate Tucker (nee Daisy Shramm) shared a room called Sisterland in a house Kate describes as a “mausoleum of unhappiness.” Childhood was further complicated by visions, which Vi calls “visuals.”
Kate describes these to her future husband: “It’s like I saw a scene from a movie, and only later do I watch the movie from start to finish.” Following an eighth-grade humiliation involving a Ouija board, Kate begins to reject her gifts. In college, she tries to change her identity and blend in at a sorority, but the visuals keep returning as “an anxious kind of certainty, an awareness of the world’s menaces that feels like a recognition of the truth, and an awareness of my own vulnerability — of everyone’s vulnerability.”
Meanwhile Vi cultivates her connection: “I want to open myself up, I want to experience other dimensions, I don’t want to be bound by the rules of this world.”
As an adult, married, stay-at-home mother of two, Kate subsists in a willed “normalcy” — your basic suburban nightmare — in which sharing an evening tub of ice cream with her rational, scientist-professor husband in front of the TV is “pretty much the best part of the day.” Vi is a self-described “bi-celibate” who ekes out a living doing psychic readings. When, early on in the novel, Vi makes a prediction — scary, specific — on local and national television, Kate is embarrassed but practical. She removes hangings from the walls and china from the cupboards. But disaster is like an appointment in Samarra: Urgent preparations prove useless.
Unfortunately — because Sittenfeld’s such a smart writer — “Sisterland” doesn’t deeply explore the ideas it raises about precognition, what it is and isn’t, the difference between intuition and psychic ability, gender roles and power dynamics in postmodern marriage or even the geomorphology of the Midwest, though all these threads are woven through it. Character is her great strength, and the moral complexity of ordinary life her main subject.
Despite moments of almost willful blandness, “Sisterland” unfolds like a good prophecy — inevitable and shocking.