The Weird Sisters

3/4/12 On days when my older brother buried my favorite doll in the backyard (this happened more than once; your dad was a typical big brother, dearest Laura), I remember strongly wishing that I had two sisters instead of a brother and a sister. The three female protagonists of this new-to-paperback novel by Eleanor Brown re-kindled my fascination with all-girl families. Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia — we meet them as adults — return to their parents’ home in a college town near Columbus, Ohio because of their mother’s struggle with breast cancer. None of them wants to be there — even the oldest who thinks she does. Over the course of the novel, the characters all learn more about themselves and each other. The potential for closeness, we find out in a wonderful surprise flashback toward the end of the book, has always been there. But they are different in their outlooks, passions and even lack thereof. Brown fills out each character with believable detail. Remarkably, she uses the first person plural, “we,” for much of the book. The “we” generally includes only two of the sisters watching the progress or mistakes of a third. However, as those who make up the “voice” shift, the voice is fluid, and somehow the “we” becomes a kind of “close third” person narrator — not the up close and personal of a first person singular “I,” but also not an inclusive, single but plural point of view. Brown’s narrative technique is original and surprising and works so well in a story where the siblings have always been, but not fully recognized that they are, part of a unit. Even when bonds unit them, they remain individuals.

As part of the promotion for the book — which has worked out really well seeing that today The Weird Sisters made it to the New York Times trade fiction best seller list, not to say it didn’t deserve that on its own merits — Penguin Books USA (twitter handle @PenguinUSA) began a Twitter book club, with the hashtag #readpeguin that has met at random, but announced, times during the past few weeks. I have been able to be there for a few of the discussions, as has Eleanor Brown (twitter handle: @EleanorWrites). Since people participating have been supposedly reading only a few chapters at a time, there has been much speculation about future action: “Maybe the father has a secret too,” someone wondered. Interesting to me, though, have been discussions about the family. No real spoilers here, but when the distant father, able to communicate only through quotes from Shakespeare’s plays (even the Sonnets don’t count), to the point that his letters are pages taken from the plays with lines highlighted and commented upon, shows his love for the girls, people said, “oh, he’s a loving father.” No, he’s a horribly distant father who loves his children. He is an emotional cripple. His relationship with his spacey wife, also loving but not quite there for her daughters, excludes the girls and, I believe, induces the problems the young women all have with relationships. Twitter readers also fixated on sibling birth order. These women embody some stereotypes about the oldest, middle and youngest siblings in a family. That’s OK. Society has an impact on who we are. But believe me, the stereotypes can be turned on their heads. After my brother’s death from a rare blood disorder 20 years ago, I became the oldest child, even though I was, technically, the youngest. Brown’s siblings, interestingly, also step out of their stereotypical birth order roles when circumstances demand new behaviors.

Personally, I find the academic, book-loving family interesting. A couple of years ago my son and daughter were in the back seat making up a conversation, complete with fake accents, between Nietzsche and Freud. “You know, other families don’t do things like this,” my son’s girlfriend piped up from the middle seat. My kids have grown up in a highly intellectualized atmosphere with a philosophy professor for a dad and an English Ph.D. for a mom. Yeah, there’s a lot of sports watched on TV, and my daughter and I were pretty faithful to Project Runway. I mean, unlike the Andreas household in Weird Sisters, we don’t just live in books. Still, there’s a warning here to all parents who don’t get down to the nitty gritty of their children’s worlds: Pay attention to your children, when they’re little, when they’re teens, when they’re adults. Everything they say and do is important, so don’t miss it the way pater and mater Adreas have in this book.

I had a few quibbles with the plot, but they’re minor. In one scene two of the sister smoke pot together and lose their inhibitions. I felt it was a little contrived. I’m also not convinced that in the end everything seems romantically on the right path for all the sisters. For one of the women (no spoilers), considering where she’s living, what’s she’s done and the path she’s chosen, a love life does not seem to me to be a definite. I think Brown could have done better here. Otherwise, though, the book is nearly perfect. It will be loved by book clubs that have not yet discovered it because there is so much to talk about. Women especially will be drawn to its pages. But — yoohoo, men out there: open the covers. Great characters and a compelling plot will greet you. (Click on the cover picture to get to the Barnes & Noble website.)