Ever since the eighth grade, Kate Schramm, the conventional, shrewd protagonist of Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, Sisterland, has felt conflicted about her psychic abilities. She has worked to keep them under wraps, to make even more invisible the visions and hunches known only to herself. What happens to Kate in the eighth grade is better left for a reader to experience than detailed here, but the emotional trauma of wanting to be popular and having that desire quashed by an inability to navigate the sly truths that being psychic unearths is enough to make one sympathetic when Kate becomes increasingly judgmental later in life. Do you recall the eighth grade as something to muddle through rather than enjoy? Try doing it as an awkward young psychic.
Kate’s quest to deny her gift would be easier if it weren’t for her boisterous identical twin sister, Violet, who goes by “Vi.” Vi, who sets up shop as a psychic, never misses an opportunity to twist the screw to Kate, needling her for negating the gift they share. Vi is heavy; Kate is slim. Vi messes up most conventional duties she is assigned, like making it through college, while Kate relishes the straight and narrow, for most of Sisterland, at least.
After a minor earthquake rattles St. Louis, the city this novel is lovingly set in (and where Sittenfeld has lived since 2007), Vi gets the unmistakable sense that St. Louis is going to suffer a catastrophic earthquake (St. Louis isn’t very far from the New Madrid Seismic Zone, so her prediction isn’t off base). To Kate’s bitter disgust and embarrassment, Vi openly shares her prediction with the media, which results in frenzied, national coverage as the date of the prophesied disaster nears. As frustrated as she is with her twin—at one point during the media circus, Kate doesn’t even want Vi in her house because “I didn’t want her to infect my children with the germs of public exposure, the antipathy of strangers” —Kate knows deep down that Vi’s prediction isn’t something to shrug off.
That wrenching opposition—between siblings who love one another but often do not agree with the other’s decisions—fuels Sisterland. Unlike most siblings’ squabbles, the eruptions Kate and Vi lob at one another threaten to play out in the national media and affect the sense of routine safety for people in St. Louis. (If that makes Sisterland seem melodramatic, one of Sittenfeld’s achievements is that the novel never is.) “Some people think that Kate is very sympathetic and identify with her,” Sittenfeld says. “She’s flawed, but they like her. And they feel like Vi is obnoxious and selfish. Other readers feel like Kate is uptight and narrow-minded and that Vi is a hilarious breath of fresh air.”
The reaction to the sisters is “very subjective,” Sittenfeld says, but Sisterland was always going to be told by Kate, not Vi. “If I had told the story from Vi’s perspective, there would be more complaints about her likability,” Sittenfeld explains. “She’s not the villain, but she gets to steal the show. She takes the oxygen of the scenes she’s in; she might be more tiresome if the entire story belonged to her.”
Sittenfeld’s work is rooted in a desire to entertain, even though her protagonists are outsiders and frequently bristle against the assumptions laid on them. Sittenfeld subtly encourages readers to root for them since the observations they make about the people around them are so insightful and rewarding. They are often funny heroines. Confused, dyspeptic teenager Lee Fiora, the darkly comedic heroine of Sittenfeld’s 2005 hit debut novel Prep, ends up causing a major scandal at the prep school where she’s a scholarship student and is all too self-aware of the trouble she’s created. The Laura Bush–like character in best-seller American Wife (2008) has a crisis of conscience about the war her husband, the president, has waged and feels an insular inability to effect change but lets readers feel what it’s like to be at the center of so much power. In Sisterland (which Kirkus gave a starred review to), Kate watches as Vi publicly unspools her prediction, feeling like “the dullest person on the planet” as Vi becomes a star. They are all women who are driving the plot forward but watching as they do so, telling you what it’s like from the inside. It’s very easy to like characters like that.
Several months after Prep started slipping off the best-seller lists, Sittenfeld wrote an article for the Atlantic about what it was like not assuming her novel would become a best-seller and then watching as it did. “I never got good at having my picture taken,” Sittenfeld writes, “though I did eventually learn to always bring along both a lint roller and a copy of Prep.”
During what turned out to be my final shoot, the photographer told me I seemed stiff and tense; having this pointed out did little to decrease my stiffness or tension. After a while, he set down his camera and asked, "Why am I here?"
"I don't know," I said. Why were any of us here? I wasn't really in the mood for existentialism.
"You're not even going to tell me?" he said. "Man."
That's when I realized he meant the question literally. "Oh," I said. "I wrote a book."
The main reason Prep became a hit is due to the fact that it’s a relentlessly observant, witty novel about a girl who catapults herself from lower- middle-class life in Indiana to a tony boarding school in the northeast based on her smarts. But there is another reason readers bought Prep: When the publicity department at Random House got hold of the manuscript after it had been purchased by an editor there, four publicists were so excited by the novel that they all agreed to work on it together. That’s an unusual situation for any book, much less a debut novel whose advance was $40,000. “Most writers would probably think, ‘Oh God, spare me,’ but it wasn’t like there was this conspiracy,” Sittenfeld explains. “Their enthusiasm for the book was organic,” she says, pointing out that 14 of the 15 publishers her agent submitted the book to turned it down.
Sittenfeld doesn’t have to worry about that now. Her novels have become increasingly confident (Maggie Shipstead pointed out in her recent Washington Post review of Sisterland that The Man of My Dreams, Sittenfeld’s second novel, from 2006, “was so poorly received that it now seems subject to omertà”). Sittenfeld has become confident too. Claire Dederer has noted the “intelligent self-effacement” that describes Sittenfeld’s writing. That’s a compliment, obviously, but Sittenfeld isn’t so sure it applies to her personality. “I do feel like there’s something egotistical about sending 400 pages out into the world and asking people to read it,” she says. “The act of publishing a novel is in itself not self-effacing.”
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.