Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: The Weird Sisters

A few weeks ago, I was in Traverse City, so of course I had to go to my favorite bookstore in the entire world (Horizon Books--have you been there?) (their children's section is particularly amazing). I like to save money, that's certainly true, so I do most of my book buying on amazon or at used bookstores, but when I go to great indie bookstores like Horizon, I feel compelled to at least buy something. This time, I limited myself to just one something, this book by Eleanor Brown. She's a new novelist; in fact, I think this is her first one.

So, here's the premise: Rose, Bean, and Cordy are sisters, daughters of a professor of Shakespeare at a prestigious midwestern university, where they have grown up memorizing passages, bantering with bardic quotes, and reading all the time. Their mother is dreamy and somewhat absent-minded, their father is obsessed with Shakespeare, and they really don't have much in common at all. Oh, and their names aren't actually Rose, Bean, and Cordy; they're Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia. Shakespearean heroines, of course, and while their life paths don't completely follow their centuries-old namesakes', there are certainly some similarities. Rose desperately wants to find true, romantic love; beautiful Bianca is often bombarded by suitors; and Cordy is beloved of most everyone who meets her.
None of them are married or have families, and as the novel begins, all three find themselves at loose ends and heading back home. Also, their mother has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, so they come to care for her in their various ways. The biggest problem, though, is that while these sisters love each other--they are family, after all--they don't really like each other very much. Rose comes off as judgemental and bossy; Bianca can be careless and cruel; and Cordy's free spirit seems a lot like a childish refusal to accept responsibility. But serious illness can often act as a crucible, and by the novel's end, the sisters must come to terms with themselves, each other, and the bonds of family.

It's a solid first novel, overall. One of the things that Eleanor Brown has done exceedingly well is her use of first person plural point of view to tell the story. I haven't seen that done but one other time ("A Rose for Emily" by Faulkner), and I imagine carrying it through in all its complexity for an entire novel must have been quite an undertaking. But that part was flawlessly done. Speaking of flawless, the characters aren't. If there is one issue I have with the novel, it is this, I think: all of the sisters--and their parents too!--have serious issues. None of them is wholly likeable. Of course, this also makes
them human, but I like to have at least one principal character that I like, and I got frustrated with each of them in turn. I did, though, really like some of the ancillary characters: Father Aidan, an Episcopalian priest, had just the right mix of kindliness and spunk; Dan Miller, a coffee shop owner, was a great listener and full of wry wit; and the indomitable librarian, Mrs. Landridge, was keen-eyed and perceptive.
Lots of great details of midwestern setting and scenery; that rings true. Ms. Brown's details about the mother's battle with cancer are vividly detailed (the afterword revealed that she had first-hand knowledge; her mother had also fought breast cancer). And of course, the idea of a family that loves, loves, LOVES books like I do is always appealing. The novel's depiction of the idiosyncracies of family life is realistic, as are its reflections on being true to yourself. All in all, I'd give it 4.75 out of 5 stars, I think.

Oh, and have I mentioned that I keep a book of great quotes? Have been doing so for years. Anything I come across in my reading that strikes me as profound, witty, well-phrased, or hilarious, I write it in that little book. Here are the two I pulled from this novel:

She never managed to find herself in these books no matter how she tried, exhuming traits from between the pages and donning them for an hour, a day, a week. We think, in some ways, we have all done this our whole lives, searching for the book that will give us the keys to ourselves, let us into a wholly formed personality as though it were a furnished room to let. As though we could walk in and look around and say to the gray-haired landlady behind us, "We'll take it."

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 oruselves about it, and by doing that, we can change the future.

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