I got into Curtis Sittenfeld because of the cover of American Wife, which featured a nostalgic photograph of a hopeful woman in a skirt, on a bike, against a backdrop of some arable crop – it could be corn, or maybe wheat – and sky. It made me think of Dorothy in Kansas, but all grown up and without the gaudy technicolour magic. I kept seeing that picture in the supermarket until I bought the book.
After that I read Curtis Sittenfeld’s first and second novels, and then I was left waiting for her next, which turned out to be Sisterland, which the postman handed over to me last week, as part of a parcel of books from my publisher. (Thank you Harriet.) I finished Sisterland last night and, as I expected, I loved it.
Like Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books, Sisterland is ostensibly about a story about a unique, even bizarre, situation but also, as if by sleight of hand – or, perhaps, in the shadowy room for manoeuvre created by a really strong hook – deals with something else. So American Wife answers the question, What is it like to be married to the President? And: What kind of woman ends up married to the President? But at the same time it tackles a number of other questions, which I can’t explicitly reveal without spoiling the book for you if you haven’t read it (in which case, get thee hence and tuck in), but which can be summarised as: what if you make a life-wrecking mistake when you are young? Can you recover, and if you do, will it still catch up with you anyway?
In Sisterland, the overt question – the narrative hook – is this: a psychic predicts a major earthquake. Is she right? Is it possible to accurately predict the future? But underlying that – at least, the way I read it – is another dilemma, and this is a much more universal one: is it possible to be feminine, a wife and mother, and also to use your gifts and be free? And if you have a gift and decide not to use it, what happens to you then?
@AlisonLMercer Such a thoughtful response to Sisterland–you must have spent as much time analyzing it as I did writing it!
— Curtis Sittenfeld (@csittenfeld) July 29, 2013
Slippery doubles, twinship and writing
Sisterland sent me back to one of my favourite books about writing, Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead, which talks at some length about the use of doubles in fiction, and why writers are so preoccupied by them. (Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is largely about a fraught relationship between sisters – and Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of my Dreams also explores this. But to take it further, to make the sisters twins and psychic to boot, makes it ever more apparent that you are dealing with two mutations of one self.)
There’s a passage in Negotiating with the Dead where Margaret Atwood draws a distinction between ‘the person who exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.’
She goes on to say, ‘I am after all a writer, so it would follow as the day the night that I must have a slippery double – or at best a mildly dysfunctional one – stashed away somewhere. I’ve read more than one review of books with our joint surname on them that would go far toward suggesting that this other person – the one credited with authorship – is certainly not me. She could never be imagined – for instance – turning out a nicely browned loaf of oatmeal-and-molasses bread, whereas I . . . but that’s another story.’
The twins, or slippery doubles, in Sisterland are Daisy and Violet Schramm, except when Daisy leaves home she decides she wants to distance herself from Violet (and, by implication, from her true self), and changes her name. Marriage helps, and when we meet her, at the beginning of the novel, she has become the altogether less distinctive Kate Tucker, who, as Vi points out, sounds like a Puritan.
Kate/Daisy begins to move away from Vi as an adolescent because they put on a show together and she plays the feminine role, and is afterwards praised for her prettiness. Popularity and acceptability beckon. She doesn’t want to be weird, and she certainly doesn’t want to be like Vi, one of whose gifts is a robust indifference to what other people think. (Also, Vi is overweight, whereas Kate/Daisy is meticulous about hitting the Stairmaster.)
And so Kate/Daisy ends up as a full-time wife and mother who has done her best to abandon her psychic abilities (but has she managed to destroy them entirely? Not quite, as you’ll see – gifts have a way of passing themselves on), a woman who is dangerously flattered, at a crucial point in the novel, when someone tells her how pretty and nice she is. Meanwhile Vi lurches towards celebrity, or notoriety, with her very public earthquake prediction – much to Kate’s embarrassment and fear.
It turns out that writing about psychics is a neat way to allude to the business of writing itself. Writers intuit what might happen to characters as the story goes on, though they don’t know for sure until it happens – and Kate and Vi are in much the same awkward and uncertain position. It made me smile when Vi, having achieved some success as a psychic (though, as it turns out, only with Kate/Daisy’s help), is able to make a living out of her gift, having previously struggled along as a waitress; some of the members of her old meditation group, who have not been quite so lucky commercially, are rather jealous of her. (I was wondering if something similar might happen if one member of a writing group found herself in a position to make the writing pay for itself.)
The art of making it real
Sisterland is unsettling, and creepy and funny and melancholy, and pulls off the coup of being both startling and believable. When I read, I want to be introduced to a new world and recognise it as true, while at the same time knowing that I’m being shown people and places that I’ve never seen before; Curtis Sittenfeld has the requisite twin gifts of truthfulness and originality in abundance, which is why she is one of my favourite discoveries of recent years.
Within the first few pages of American Wife I realised I’d found a new writer that I really liked, which is one of the great pleasures of reading. The best consolation for coming to the end of a book you love is knowing that there are others by the same author that you can go on to; and reading a number of different books by the same writer helps to confirm your sense of what is unique about them, and what attracted you to them in the first place.
It’s like getting to know someone by seeing them over time, dealing with different situations and environments; you can satisfy your curiosity about what this person has done in the past, and if the writer is still going strong, you’ll be eager to find out where they’re going next.
For me, and I suspect for most of us, this doesn’t happen all that often – this finding a book you really like, and chasing up the writer’s backlist. Back in the 1990s, it was William Gibson (starting with Neuromancer ), Margaret Atwood (The Blind Assassin), Raymond Carver (the collected short stories), James Ellroy (LA Confidential), Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea), Jayne Anne Phillips (Fast Lanes), and Joyce Carol Oates (Blonde). Those are all terrific books, and if you haven’t read them, I urge you to at least look them up – maybe you’ll get hooked on those writers the way I did.
More recently, there’s been Claire Messud (The Emperors’ Children), George R R Martin (Game of Thrones) and, of course, Curtis Sittenfeld. I guess you might deduce from this list that, on the whole, I love genre fiction and women’s fiction (or rather, fiction by and largely about women), and my heart is unstirred by much else, and you’d probably be about right. Why exactly it should be so I don’t know. What exactly it is that gets me hooked I don’t know. Sympathy for the underdog might be part of it, but only part; I suspect I also respond to writers who let their underdogs bite back.