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Great Plains

The hidden depths of Curtis Sittenfeld's Midwest fiction

Peter Voerman/Flickr

Curtis Sittenfeld has made a career out of excavating beneath the surface of outwardly boring characters. In her first, splashy novel, Prep, she recounted in acute and vivid detail the story of a plain scholarship student at a fancy East Coast boarding school. Her next book, The Man of My Dreams, told the story of a similarly average character, only this time without the sexy setting. (“In her new book, there’s room only for Very Unimportant People,” read the Times review.) Next, she imagined just what was going on beneath Laura Bush’s inscrutable, dull-but-likable public persona in American Wife. In her latest book, Sittenfeld’s heroine and narrator is Kate, a blonde, former sorority sister living in the suburbs of St. Louis, happily married and staying at home with her two children. The twist: She is psychic, as is her twin sister Violet, who has predicted that a giant earthquake will hit the city.

The twins’ relation to their ESP, it turns out, tells us something about their divergent personalities. Violet, who has grown into an unstylish, overweight lesbian hippie without a college degree, has made her “senses” a center point of her personality and career. (She works as a professional psychic and talks frequently about her Guardian, as she refers to the spirit that informs her.) Vi, as her sister calls her, goes on the “Today” show to talk about her earthquake prediction, while Kate—who was born Daisy, but changed her name in college—not only refuses to acknowledge her “senses” publicly but has done her best to repress any premonitions. She can’t entirely, and tells her sister—who takes the public credit—that the earthquake will hit on October 16.

Although Kate and Vi’s joint prediction sets the plot in motion, this isn’t really a novel about the woo-woo spirit world. It’s a classic family story, in a classic American setting: the weaknesses in a good marriage, the strengths of the love between two seemingly opposed sisters, the damage that childhood can inflict years later, the way motherhood can become all-engrossing. Or so I decided midway through when I found myself enjoying the book, despite its dubious-seeming premise. Sisterland not only reveals hidden depths in its characters, but it, too, holds more than a snap judgment might promise.

I began looking for justifications for Sittenfeld’s use of the ESP schtick. Was she playing with the fiction writer’s feelings about her characters and story as she writes? Was she exaggerating what it feels like to be an empath—someone who understands feelings without being told? Was she trying to hint at the way bonds between sisters—or mother and child—can often seem extrasensory? Was she extending a middle finger at the way the literary establishment dismisses genre fiction out-of-hand? Did Sittenfeld latch on to a gimmick as a way of drawing attention to the sort of story that, when written by women, is frequently ignored or categorized as little more than chick lit? 

Or: maybe she just thought it’d be a fun plot device. Sittenfeld appears refreshingly unconcerned with whether or not her books are taken as “serious” literature, just as she is unconcerned with making her characters seem either compelling and glamorous on the surface or likable once you get beneath it. “Of course I know my characters are unlikable sometimes or have prejudices,” Sittenfeld told the Guardian recently. “It's not as if I'm thinking they're so endearing all the time. I guess it's much more interesting to me to write someone who is a combination of good and bad qualities because that's what people are like in real life.”

Kate is—like many of Sittenfeld’s previous characters—angry despite the placid exterior. She holds on to bitter resentments against her mother, a woman with clear emotional problems, and her middle school nemesis. She resents the way her sister’s differences, heightened as they are by their similarities, might reflect back on her, something anyone who has sisters can understand. But, sharply, Sittenfeld also makes sure that this self/other-consciousness is wrapped up inextricably with a fierce, protective love. The sisters fight, and say the cruelest things imaginable and stay up half the night stewing over them, but instead of apologizing in a grand way, they jump right back into the sharing of everyday intimacies. Kate is monstrously dismissive of her sister’s later-in-life coming out (she thinks it is easier to date lesbians than to lose weight and attract men), but still advises her, with genuine helpfulness on what she ought to wear to her first date. In the dressing room at Lane Bryant, helping Vi try to find an outfit, Kate suddenly realizes that she has just the shirt (from her maternity wardrobe) to do the trick—the impulse to wrap your sister in your own clothes as an expression of love and closeness, entwined unavoidably with competitiveness over who wears it better, rang true to me. 

But if Sittenfeld is good on the subject of sisters, she is better on new motherhood. For Kate is given purpose and clarity by the birth of her children. She hires a sitter, only to bring one of her children with her, so unable is she to leave them alone. She enviously eyes the organic cotton baby clothes of a wealthier neighbor, and she decides to quit her job after her first child is hospitalized with a bad infection. (It is to Sittenfeld’s credit that these household details mostly don’t feel tedious.) The day-to-day of motherhood helps heighten even further the alienation she feels from her sister’s choices: “It was one thing for my sister to fail to appreciate the energy I put into our lunches, the sheer choreography of getting a six-month-old and a two-year-old out of the house, into the car, into a restaurant, and back home with no major meltdowns (never in my children’s presence could I have ordered a meal as intricately, messily hands-on as a fajita), but it was another thing entirely for Vi to mock me,” she seethes during a lunch that’s turned sour. And, motherhood gives Kate new fodder for her anger at her mother: “[I]t took having babies myself for me to understand just how lacking, how depressing even, the story of our births was, with its absence of any hint of joy on our mother’s part.”

Only the women in Sisterland seem to be afforded the ability to be cruel or even complicated, a limitation that has marked Sittenfeld’s previous work, too. All the men—Kate’s string of boyfriends, her husband, her father, and the stay-at-home dad she spends most of her days with—are decent and relatively simple. It can seem, at times, like their kindness is their only distinct personality trait. Their inner lives are hinted at only when they reveal themselves as sharply perceptive on the topic of Kate herself, though she is rarely quite as attuned to them, in turn. When Kate’s senses turn out to be a surprising inheritance from her father, not her mother, it is as if Sittenfeld is deliberately highlighting how thoroughly she has hewed to the gendered promise of her title: The women of this book, despite their supposed extra-dimensional vision, can seem quite blind to the men in front of them.

Despite this lopsidedness, Sittenfeld’s prose is coolly readable, unaggressive, and colloquial. The book’s climax is a soap operatic one visible from a mile away, but the plot never drags. There is a passage from American Wife in which Sittenfeld describes the underrated physical beauty of the Midwest (where she lives, and where Sisterland is set). The East and West Coasts are self-regarding, she writes, and have “a beauty that I can't help seeing as show-offy. But the Midwest: It is quietly lovely, not preening with the need to have its attributes remarked on.” It’s not a bad description of Sittenfeld’s own work.