Thursday, February 9, 2012

Book Review: The Weird Sisters

When I began reading Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters, I sensed the familiar pattern: the siblings of an educated, quirky American family each stake their claim to their own particular brand of identity and then come together in the end. Images of films like The Family Stone, In Her Shoes, and Our Idiot Brother came to mind. Indeed, many of those go-to character tropes circulate here as well. Three sisters--all near thirty--have reconvened in their hometown, a college town where there father enjoys near celebrity status as a professor specializing in Shakespeare. Their mother's battle with cancer acts as a hinge that holds them in place long enough to face their differences and find their similarities.

Both burdened and blessed with the weight of their father's craft, these three sisters each inhabit a Shakespearian world of drama of their own making. The oldest, Rosalind (Rose), has the perfect plan and will never leave their sleepy college town. She has her PhD in mathematics and is just waiting for the perfect opening so that she can enjoy a life of quiet luxury with her perfect academic fiancé. But when he gets a job offer in England, she has to make decisions she's never thought of facing. Bianca (Bean), the middle child, has slunk back from the fast life in New York with her tail between her legs. She has secrets filled with shame and regret and is trying to find a way to make the pace of her new life match the lust of her old one. The youngest, Cordelia (Cordy), has spent her adulthood as a vagabond following folk bands and sleeping on couches. She's never home for long, but big changes in her life have her questioning setting down some roots.

The perfect one. The sophisticated one. The wild one.

What saves this story from the cliche, however, is Brown's skillful writing and unique perspective. The typical tale is that the feuding siblings find their commonalities in the end, but Brown's writing both complicates and simplifies that tried and true tale.

In those other examples of this trope, the story is told either through the eyes of one sibling or from a disconnected, third-person point of view. Brown manages to place us inside of the minds of all three siblings individually but also in the mind of the collective whole they learn to become. Take for example, this passage:
We had sent Bean to the store--Rose was helping our father move furniture in the bedroom for our mother's impending confinement, and Cordy was too unreliable to be trusted
Notice that each sister is mentioned individually--and therefore separate from the "we" who tells the story--but they are also represented collectively within that "we." They are, simultaneously, separate and together.

Brown is amazingly skilled at controlling this unusual narrative voice. The narrative "we" seems to know how the story will end, speaking to us with wisdom and a hint of optimism on things to come. The individual sister's perspectives, however, are dense with the pathos of their individual woes, caught in the moment and full of jealousy and short-sightedness when it comes to their siblings.

In this way we are able to see the sisters in their weakness and their strength at the same time. We know both hints of their futures and glimpses of their pasts. They becomes something more than their individual selves without losing their identities.

Near the end of the book, a secondary character who represents the voice of wisdom says this to one of the sisters:
There are times in our lives when we have to realize our past is precisely what it is, and we cannot change it. But we can change the story we tell ourselves about it, and by doing that, we can change the future.
Ultimately, that's what the story is about. These sisters find a new version of their stories, a version that allows them to speak as a united voice without losing the quirks that make them unique. Isn't that the battle we all wage? The chance to stand up as an individual but fall back upon a collective? The ability to both belong and stand apart?

Join in on the BlogHer conversation about The Weird Sisters and share your view of the book.

Disclosure: I received compensation from BlogHer for this review, but the opinions and ideas expressed in this post are fully my own. 

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