Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Book Review: The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

I'm somewhere in the murky middle-lands of writing a novel about sibling relationships, so after reading the back copy of "The Weird Sisters" by Eleanor Brown, I knew I had to read the whole book. "Research," I told my husband when he raised an eyebrow at the growing pile of paperbacks in our CostCo cart.
The basic premise of "The Weird Sisters" is that three sisters - named Roselyn (Rose), Bianca (Bean) and Cordelia (Cordy) by their Shakespearean scholar father - each find their lives in various states of disrepair and make their way back to the small, academic Ohio town of their upbringing to lick their wounds. This return home also coincides with their mother's breast cancer diagnosis, leaving their loving but somewhat self-absorbed parents even more distracted than usual, and forcing the girls to eventually confront the more problematic aspects of their lives independently.
I expected to enjoy it; there aren't many books I don't enjoy on one level or another. Given the numerous differences between my life and that of the Andreas family, however, I didn't expect the Weird Sisters to speak to me quite so strongly.
My siblings and I with Dad - '90 or '91 -
die-hard Mets fans all around.
Most obviously, I bonded with the oldest sister, Rose. I am the oldest of four siblings and I, too, developed an overwhelming need to control situations and fix other people's problems. This passage, in particular, struck me: 
"Rose never thought of all the responsibility she had taken on as having been permitted by someone. It was something that she just had to do. At dinner in a near-empty Italian restaurant, Bean and Cordy playing hide-and-go-seek between the legs of deserted tables, their shrieks making the waiters jump as they carried full platters to the table where our parents ate with their friends, Rose escorting them to the entryway and keeping them occupied with crayons and a long white strip of butcher paper ... In the living room, Rose carefully knocking the ashes out of our father's pipe as he slept peacefully in the chair.  Truly, no one had ever asked her to do these things, but we had relied on her to do them, relied so heavily that it had never occurred to us how unfair to her it might be, how much she had begun to think of herself as the person who did those things." 

The look my sister has given me
since we were very small
whenever she thinks I'm wrong.
Which is often.
This brought such strong memories of corralling my own siblings at social events, of scrubbing the grout in the kitchen floor, of fixing scraped knees and learning to hang laundry on a line I could barely reach. No criticism of my parents or complaints of having to pitch in should be inferred in these memories, but they did instill within me an overblown sense of responsibility for the well-being of my family members, particularly my siblings. And as in the book, I suspect my siblings found my desire to help and protect them more than a little smothering at times.
Rose allowed her sense of familial responsibility to tie her to her hometown. In this sense, I am more like the middle sister, Bean, who fled to New York City as soon as she was able.  I headed in the other direction, landing in southern California, but I was also escaping the small town claustrophobia that comes when everyone you pass on the sidewalk has known you, your family and your personal business for as long as you can remember. Although I avoided the kinds of mistakes Bean made (thank goodness for that first-born personality), like her, I have also begun a slow migration back to the small town lifestyle, if not the exact location, of my childhood. And just like Bean's return to the library or her bickering fights with her sisters, going back home triggers hot flashes of awkward teenage angst in my graying, sagging thirty-something body.
My siblings and I with Dad - '06 or '07
Yep, we're still Mets fans.
Brown chose to tell her story using an unusual perspective, omniscient first-person plural. What this means is that we are privvy to the personal thoughts of each of the sisters and their perspective on the other sisters in a kind of rotating POV. At first, I was afraid that this would keep me from sinking into the story, constantly leaving me wondering "who's telling us this?" Once I got used to it, though, I liked that the plurality of the narration allowed the reader to become intimate with each sibling from their own perspectives and from the perspectives of both sisters. I found myself wishing I could experience my relationship with my own siblings from this POV, as I'm sure they see me quite differently than I see myself.
In general, "The Weird Sisters" would probably fall into the "Great Beach Read" category. It's not the best writing I've ever come across, but it's solid and the story moves along. The Shakespearean quotes liberally sprinkled throughout are handled well, with enough explanation to avoid getting tedious for those of us who haven't read much of the Bard since high school. Many Very Serious Literary People on the Interwebz have criticized the book for a myriad of offenses - a shaky timeline, cliched plot devices and, most often, the fact that we never know what books the book-obsessed family members are reading* - but none of these problems pulled me out of the story.
I suspect I'm not the only one for whom "The Weird Sisters" tapped into some latent capital-e Emotions revolving around my place within my own family structure and my thirty-something struggles with "adulting".
*It's clearly stated many times that they read anything and everything they can get their hands on - instruction manuals, biographies, genre novels, cereal boxes - and being of similar nature, the lack of titles didn't bother me. What they read was less important to them than the fact that they were reading. I'm sure this idea is quite irritating to some.

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