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A Novel

Written by Curtis SittenfeldAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Curtis Sittenfeld



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On Sale: June 25, 2013
Pages: 432 | ISBN: 978-0-8129-9440-7
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST NOVELS OF THE YEAR BY
Slate • Daily Candy • St. Louis Post-Dispatch • The Guardian (U.K.)

“Novelists get called master storytellers all the time, but Sittenfeld really is one. . . . What might be most strikingly excellent about Sisterland is the way Sittenfeld depicts domesticity and motherhood.”—Maggie Shipstead, The Washington Post
 
Psychologically vivid . . . Sisterland is a testament to [Curtis Sittenfeld’s] growing depth and assurance as a writer.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
 
“[Sittenfeld’s] gifts are in full effect with this novel, and she uses them to create a genuinely engrossing sense of uncertainty and suspense.”—Sloane Crosley, NPR’s All Things Considered

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of American Wife and Prep, returns with a mesmerizing novel of family and identity, loyalty and deception, and the delicate line between truth and belief.
 
From an early age, Kate and her identical twin sister, Violet, knew that they were unlike everyone else. Kate and Vi were born with peculiar “senses”—innate psychic abilities concerning future events and other people’s secrets. Though Vi embraced her visions, Kate did her best to hide them.
 
Now, years later, their different paths have led them both back to their hometown of St. Louis. Vi has pursued an eccentric career as a psychic medium, while Kate, a devoted wife and mother, has settled down in the suburbs to raise her two young children. But when a minor earthquake hits in the middle of the night, the normal life Kate has always wished for begins to shift. After Vi goes on television to share a premonition that another, more devastating earthquake will soon hit the St. Louis area, Kate is mortified. Equally troubling, however, is her fear that Vi may be right. As the date of the predicted earthquake quickly approaches, Kate is forced to reconcile her fraught relationship with her sister and to face truths about herself she’s long tried to deny.
 
Funny, haunting, and thought-provoking, Sisterland is a beautifully written novel of the obligation we have toward others, and the responsibility we take for ourselves. With her deep empathy, keen wisdom, and unerring talent for finding the extraordinary moments in our everyday lives, Curtis Sittenfeld is one of the most exceptional voices in literary fiction today.

Praise for Sisterland
 
“What’s most captivating about Sisterland is the intimate, intense portrayal of identical twin sisters. . . . [The novel] unfolds like a good prophecy—inevitable and shocking.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“The accomplished Sittenfeld . . . is as skillful as ever at developing an intriguing premise and likable characters. . . . Sittenfeld’s affectionate take on sibling rivalry is spot-on.”—People
 
“The power of [Sittenfeld’s] writing and the force of her vision challenge the notion that great fiction must be hard to read. She is a master of dramatic irony, creating fully realized social worlds before laying waste to her heroines’ understanding of them. . . . Her prose [is] a rich delight.”—The Boston Globe
 
Wise and often wickedly entertaining . . . Readers who have siblings—especially women with sisters—will likely come away feeling as if the author really is psychic.”—USA Today


From the eBook edition.

Excerpt

9781400068319|excerpt

Sittenfeld / SISTERLAND

Chapter 1

September 2009

St. Louis, Missouri

The shaking started around three in the morning, and it happened that I was already awake because I’d nursed Owen at two and then, instead of going back to sleep, I’d lain there brooding about the fight I’d had at lunch with my sister, Vi. I’d driven with Owen and Rosie in the backseat to pick up Vi, and the four of us had gone to Hacienda. We’d finished eating and I was collecting Rosie’s stray food from the tabletop—once I had imagined I wouldn’t be the kind of mother who ordered chicken tenders for her child off the menu at a Mexican restaurant—when Vi said, “So I have a date tomorrow.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Who is it?”

Casually, after running the tip of her tongue over her top teeth to check for food, Vi said, “She’s an IT consultant, which sounds boring, but she’s traveled a lot in South and Central America, so she couldn’t be a total snooze, right?”

I was being baited, but I tried to match Vi’s casual tone as I said, “Did you meet online?” Rosie, who was two and a half, had gotten up from the table, wandered over to a ficus plant in the corner, and was smelling the leaves. Beside me in the booth, buckled into his car seat, Owen, who was six months, grabbed at a little plush giraffe that hung from the car seat’s handle.

Vi nodded. “There’s pretty slim pickings for dykes in St. Louis.”

“So that’s what you consider yourself these days?” I leaned in and said in a lowered tone, “A lesbian?”

Looking amused, Vi imitated my inclined posture and quiet voice. “What if the manager hears you?” she said. “And gets a boner?” She grinned. “At this point, I’m bi-celibate. Or should I say Vi-sexual? But I figure it’s all a numbers game—I keep putting myself out there and, eventually, I cross paths with Ms. or Mr. Right.”

“Meaning you’re on straight dating sites, too?”

“Not at the moment, but in the future, maybe.” Our waitress approached and left the bill at the edge of the table. I reached for it as soon as she’d walked away—when Vi and I ate together, I always paid without discussion—and Vi said, “Don’t leave a big tip. She was giving us attitude.”

“I didn’t notice.”

“And my fajita was mostly peppers.”

“You of all people should realize that’s not the waitress’s fault.” For years, all through our twenties, Vi had worked at restaurants. But she was still regarding me skeptically as I set down my credit card, and I added, “It’s rude not to tip extra when you bring little kids.” We were at a conversational crossroads. Either we could stand, I could gather the mess of belongings that accompanied me wherever I went—once I had been so organized that I kept my spice rack alphabetized, and now I left hats and bibs and sippy cups in my wake, baggies of Cheerios, my own wallet and sunglasses—and the four of us could head out to the parking lot and then go on to drop Vi at her house, all amicably. Or I could express a sentiment that wasn’t Vi, in her way, asking me to share?

“I believe in tipping well for great service,” Vi was saying. “This girl was phoning it in.”

I said, “If you feel equally attracted to men and women, why not date men? Isn’t it just easier? I mean, I wish it weren’t true, but—” I glanced at my daughter right as she pulled a ficus leaf off the plant and extended her tongue toward it. I had assumed the plant was fake and, therefore, durable, and I called out, “No mouth, Rosie. Come over here.” When I looked back at Vi, I couldn’t remember what I’d wanted to say next. Hadn’t I had another point? And Vi was sneering in a way that made me wish, already, that I’d simply let the moment pass.

“Easier?” Her voice was filled with contempt. “It’s just easier to be straight? As in, what, less embarrassing to my uptight sister?”

“That’s not what I said.”

“Don’t you think it would be easier if black people hadn’t demanded to ride in the front of the bus like white people? Or go to the same schools? That was so awkward when that happened!” This seemed to be an indirect reference to my friend Hank, but I ignored it.

“I don’t have a problem with gay people,” I said, and my cheeks were aflame, which I’d have known, even if I hadn’t been able to feel their heat, by the fact that Vi’s were, too. We would always be identical twins, even though we were no longer, in most ways, identical.

“Where’s Rosie’s baloney?” Rosie said. She had returned from the ficus plant—thank goodness—and was standing next to me.

“It’s at home,” I said. “We didn’t bring it.” The baloney was a piece from a lunch-themed puzzle, a life-sized pink wooden circle on a yellow wooden square, that Rosie had recently become inexplicably attached to. I said to Vi, “Don’t make me out to be homophobic. It’s a statement of fact that life is simpler—it is, Vi—don’t look at me like that. It’s not like two women can get married in Missouri, and there’s a lot of financial stuff that goes along with that, or visiting each other in the hospital. Or having kids—for gay couples, that’s complicated and it’s expensive, too.”

“Having kids period is complicated!” Vi’s anger had taken on an explosive quality, and I felt people at nearby tables looking toward us. “And this whole making-life-simpler bullshit?” she continued. While I flinched at the swear word in front of Rosie, it didn’t seem intentional—there was no question that Vi sometimes liked to provoke me, but it appeared she was swept up in the moment. “Children are nothing but a problem people create and then congratulate themselves on solving. Look at you and Jeremy, for Christ’s sake. ‘Oh, we can’t leave the house because it’s Rosie’s naptime, we can’t be out past five forty-five p.m.’ or whenever the fuck it is—” I was pretty sure Rosie had only a vague notion of what these obscenities, or anything else Vi was saying, meant, but I could sense her watching rapt from beside me, no doubt even more enthralled because she’d heard her own name. “Or, ‘She can’t wear that sunscreen because it has parabens in it’—I mean, seriously, can you even tell me what a paraben is?—and ‘She can’t eat raw carrots because she might choke,’ and on and on and on. But who asked you to have children? Do you think you’re providing some service to the world? You got pregnant because you wanted to—which, okay, that’s your right, but then other people can’t do what they want to because it’s too complicated?”

“Fine,” I said. “Forget I said anything.”

“Don’t be a pussy.”

I glared at her. “Don’t call me names.”

“Well, it seems awfully convenient that you get to speak your mind and then close down the discussion.”

“I need to go home for their naps,” I said, and there was a split second in which Vi and I looked at each other and almost laughed. Instead, sourly, she said, “Of course you do.”

In the car, she was silent, and after a couple minutes, Rosie said from the backseat, “Mama wants to sing the Bingo song.”

“I’ll sing it later,” I said.

“Mama wants to sing the Bingo song now,” Rosie said, and when I didn’t respond, she added in a cheerful tone, “When you take off your diaper, it makes Mama very sad.”

Vi snorted unpleasantly. “Why don’t you just toilet train her?”

“We’re going to soon.”

Vi said nothing, and loathing for her flared up in me, which was probably just what she wanted. 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. And yet, in one final attempt at diplomacy, as I stopped the car on the street outside the small single-story gray house where Vi lived, I said, “For Dad’s birthday, I was thinking—”

“Let’s talk about it later.”

“Fine.” If she thought I was going to plead for forgiveness, she was mistaken, and it wasn’t just because we really did need to get home for Rosie and Owen’s naps. She climbed from the car, and before she shut the door, I said, “By the way?”

A nasty satisfaction rose in me as she turned. She was prepared for me to say, I didn’t mean to be such a jerk in the restaurant. Instead, I said, “Parabens are preservatives.”

Fourteen hours later, at three in the morning, our squabble was what I was stewing over; specifically, I was thinking that the reason I’d made my points so clumsily was that what I really believed was even more offensive than that being straight was easier than being gay. I believed Vi was dating women because she was at her heaviest ever—she’d quit smoking in the spring, and now she had to be sixty pounds overweight—and most lesbians seemed to be more forgiving about appearances than most straight men. I didn’t think I’d object to Vi being gay if I believed she actually was, but something about this development felt false, akin to the way she’d wished, since our adolescence, that she’d been born Jewish, or the way she kept a dream catcher above her kitchen sink. Lying there in the dark next to Jeremy, I wondered what would happen if I were to suggest that she and I do Weight Watchers together; I myself was still carrying ten extra pounds from being pregnant with Owen. Then I thought about how most nights Jeremy and I split a pint of ice cream in front of the TV, how it was pretty much the best part of the day—the whole ritual of relaxation after both children were asleep and before Owen woke up for his ten p.m. nursing—and how it seemed unlikely that half a pint of fudge ripple was part of any diet plan. This was when the bed in which Jeremy and I slept began to shake.

I assumed at first that Jeremy was causing the mattress to move by turning over, except that he wasn’t turning. The rocking continued for perhaps ten seconds, at which point Jeremy abruptly sat up and said, “It’s an earthquake.” But already the rocking seemed to be subsiding.

I sat up, too. “Are you sure?”

“You get Owen and I’ll get Rosie.” Jeremy had turned on the light on his nightstand and was walking out of the room, and as I hurried from bed, adrenaline coursed through me; my heart was beating faster and I felt simultaneously unsteady and purposeful. In his crib, illuminated by a starfish-shaped night-light, Owen was lying on his back as I’d left him an hour earlier, his arms raised palms up on either side of his head, his cheeks big and smooth, his nose tiny. I hesitated just a second before lifting him, and I grabbed one of the eight pacifiers scattered in the crib. As I’d guessed he would, he blinked awake, seeming confused, but made only one mournful cry as I stuck in the pacifier. In the small central hallway that connected the house’s three bedrooms, we almost collided with Jeremy and Rosie, Rosie’s legs wrapped around Jeremy’s torso, her arms dangling limply over his shoulders, her face half-obscured by tangled hair. Her eyes were open, I saw, but barely.

“Do we go to the basement?” I said to Jeremy. The shaking had definitely stopped.

“That’s tornadoes.”

“What is it for earthquakes?” In retrospect, it’s hard to believe I needed to ask, hard to believe I had reached the age of thirty-four and given birth to two children without bothering to learn such basic information.

Jeremy said, “In theory, you get under a table, but staying in bed is okay, too.”

“Really?” We looked at each other, my husband sweet and serious in his gray T-shirt and blue striped boxer shorts, our daughter draped across him.

“You want me to check?” He meant by looking online from his phone, which he kept beside the bed at night.

“We shouldn’t call Courtney, should we?” I said. “They must have felt it if we did.” Courtney Wheeling was Jeremy’s colleague at Washington University—his area of study was aquatic chemistry, hers was seismology and plate tectonics—and she and her husband, Hank, lived down the street and were our best friends.

“It doesn’t seem necessary,” Jeremy said. “I’ll look at FEMA’s website, but I think the best thing is for all of us to go back to bed.”

I nodded my chin toward Rosie. “Keeping them with us or in their own rooms?”

Rosie’s head popped up. “Rosie sleeps with Mama!” A rule of thumb with Rosie was that whether I did or didn’t think she was following the conversation, I was always wrong.

“Keeping them,” Jeremy said. “In case of aftershocks.”

In our room, I climbed into bed holding Owen, shifting him so he was nestled in my right arm while Jeremy helped Rosie settle on my other side. I wasn’t sure whether to be alarmed or pleasantly surprised that Jeremy was all right having the kids sleep with us. In general, he was the one who resisted bringing them into our bed; he’d read the same books in Rosie’s infancy that I had, half of which argued that sharing a bed with your kids was the most nurturing thing you could do and the other half of which warned that doing so would result in your smothering them either figuratively or literally. But I liked when they were close by—whether or not it really was safer, at some primitive level, it felt like it had to be—and the thought of them sleeping alone in their cribs sometimes pinched at my heart. Besides, I could never resist their miniature limbs and soft skin.

Rosie curled toward me then, tapping my arm, and I turned— awkwardly, because of how I was holding Owen—to look at her. She said, “Rosie wants a banana.”

“In the morning, sweetheart.”

Jeremy had gone to the window that faced the street, and he parted the curtains. “Everyone’s lights are on,” he said.

“A monkey eats a banana peel,” Rosie declared. “But not people.”

“That’s true,” I said. “It would make us sick.”

Jeremy was typing on his phone. After a minute, he said, “There’s nothing about it online yet.” He looked up. “How’s he doing?”

“He’s more asleep than awake, but will you get an extra binky just in case?” Surely this was evidence of the insularity of our lives: that unless otherwise specified, whenever Jeremy or I said he, we meant our son, and whenever we said she, we meant our daughter. On a regular basis, we sent each other texts consisting in their entirety of one letter and one punctuation mark: R? for How’s Rosie doing? and O? for How’s Owen? And surely it was this insularity that so irritated Vi, whereas to me, the fact that my life was suburban and conventional was a victory.

Jeremy returned from Owen’s room with a second pacifier, handed it to me, and lay down before turning off the light on his nightstand. Then— I whispered, because whispering seemed more appropriate in the dark— I said, “So if there are aftershocks, we just stay put?”

“And keep away from windows. That’s pretty much all I could find on the FEMA site.”

“Thanks for checking.” Over Owen’s head, I reached out to rub Jeremy’s shoulder.

I felt them falling asleep one by one then, my son, my daughter, and my husband. Awake alone, I experienced a gratitude for my life and our family, the four of us together, accounted for and okay. In contrast to the agitation I’d been gripped by before the earthquake, I was filled with calmness, a sense that we’d passed safely through a minor scare—like when you speed up too fast in slow highway traffic and almost hit the car in front of you but then you don’t. The argument with Vi, inflated prior to the quake, shrank to its true size; it was insignificant. My sister and I had spent three decades bickering and making up.

But now that several years have passed, it pains me to remember this night because I was wrong. Although we were safe in that moment, we hadn’t passed through anything. Nothing was concluding, nothing was finished; everything was just beginning. And though my powers weren’t what they once had been, though I no longer considered myself truly psychic, I still should have been able to anticipate what would happen next.
Curtis Sittenfeld

About Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld - Sisterland

Photo © Jerry Bauer

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of American Wife, The Man of My Dreams and Prep, which was chosen by The New York Times as one of the Ten Best Books of 2005. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Salon, Allure, Glamour, and on public radio’s This American Life. Her books are being translated into twenty-five languages. Visit her website at www.curtissittenfeld.com.
Praise

Praise

“Psychologically vivid . . . Sittenfeld’s gifts for portraying the inner lives of her heroines [bring Sisterland] closer, in terms of emotional chiaroscuro, to two classics about pairs of sisters, The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett and The Easter Parade by Richard Yates . . . Sisterland is a testament to the author’s growing depth and assurance as a writer.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
 
Novelists get called master storytellers all the time, but Sittenfeld really is one, a kind of no-nonsense, BabyBjörn-wearing Scheherazade. . . . What might be most strikingly excellent about Sisterland is the way Sittenfeld depicts domesticity and motherhood.”—Maggie Shipstead, The Washington Post
 
“[Sittenfeld’s] gifts are in full effect with this novel, and she uses them to create a genuinely engrossing sense of uncertainty and suspense.”—Sloane Crosley, NPR’s All Things Considered

“In [Sisterland], the accomplished Sittenfeld . . . is as skillful as ever at developing an intriguing premise and likable characters. . . . Sittenfeld’s affectionate take on sibling rivalry is spot-on.”—People
 
“The power of [Sittenfeld’s] writing and the force of her vision challenge the notion that great fiction must be hard to read. She is a master of dramatic irony, creating fully realized social worlds before laying waste to her heroines’ understanding of them. . . . Her prose [is] a rich delight.”—The Boston Globe
 
Wise and often wickedly entertaining . . . Readers who have siblings—especially women with sisters—will likely come away feeling as if the author really is psychic, able to learn the truth of their own dark secrets, and forgive them.”—USA Today
 
“Full of quiet, surprisingly relatable moments, [Sisterland is] a thoughtful look at the near-supernatural closeness between sisters. . . . As she did so well in her first novel, Prep, Sittenfeld richly evokes the daily lives of young women who are trying to figure themselves out. . . . Sisterland is a compelling portrait of what it’s like to grow up alongside your best—and worst—self.”—Entertainment Weekly
 
“Arresting . . . Captivating . . . Sisterland is a long story of shake-ups: eerie precognitions, seismic shifts, lapses in fidelity. Like life itself, it graphs both the agonizing longueurs of domestic life and the horrific thrill of sudden disasters. . . . Character is [Sittenfeld’s] great strength, and the moral complexity of ordinary life her main subject. . . . Sisterland unfolds like a good prophecy—inevitable and shocking.”—San Francisco Chronicle


From the Hardcover edition.
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

A Conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld and The Rumpus’s Amy Gentry, August 2013

Amy Gentry: A lot of your female, first-person characters have an investment in conformity and flying under the radar. Why are you interested in those characters particularly? Because, especially in Sisterland, you had a choice. You could have written from Vi’s point of view instead.

Curtis Sittenfeld: I find people who, at first glance, appear to be typical or average, whatever that means, and then turn out to have hidden qualities, to be very interesting—much more interesting than someone whose eccentricities announce themselves immediately and can turn out to be superficial. So I think that that’s part of it. When I was younger—when I, myself, was a teenager—I gave people the benefit of the doubt, thinking, so many people that appear very calm and even boring must have all these wild emotions and crazy ideas. As I’ve gotten older I’ve unfortunately come to the conclusion that a lot of people who seem normal and boring are normal and boring. But in a novel, I have the privilege of making people more layered.

AG: You include a lot of finely rendered psychological detail. I wonder how that developed for you? Were you conscious of going after that psychological realism?

CS: I wouldn’t ever, while writing, think to myself, “I need a little more psychological realism.” I write what’s interesting to me, and so if I’m reading I like to have a very thorough idea of a character in a book that’s by someone else. I like it when characters are some combination of appealing and flawed or self-interested. I think in terms of scenes, and what I want a scene to achieve, and the psychological realism arises from that. It just kind of works its way up. I have my first-person narrators make a lot of observations, I have lots of dialogue, and so it bubbles up out of that.

AG: A lot of the psychological details tend to be these very fine observations that the character is making about the social interactions happening around her. Do you have a special interest in social dynamics?

CS: To some extent, I do. Tonight I’ll go with my family to a neighbor’s house for a little cookout, and it’s not as if I’ll be mentally taking notes. I would not be above borrowing something juicy if it happened, but I interact fairly normally in social situations. I think that a lot of people can be having these interactions, and then afterwards you make some observations that you weren’t even conscious of making in the moment.

AG: Did you ever wish that you were a twin?

CS: Yeah, I would have liked to have been a twin. I have a sister who’s two years older, a sister who’s five years younger, and a brother who’s nine years younger, so there was lots of sibling in my life already. But I will say that sometimes my sisters and I get mistaken for twins, and I always take it as a compliment. My sisters and I were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., and we got mistaken for triplets, and we were extra-complimented. At least I was. Maybe they weren’t, but I was.

AG: Why is that, do you think?

CS: I guess because twins have this mystique, and triplets—the normal sibling connection potentially can be very powerful, and there’s this idea that it’s even more powerful with twins. It really is not just someone like me, but another version of me.

AG: Did you talk to identical twins when you wrote the book?

CS: Yes. I’m friends with these twins who, they’re about to turn forty, and they don’t know if they’re identical or not. I guess they’ve never had the test, and I think they are, but I guess it’s not clear. By total coincidence, my British editor is an identical twin. So my friend Emily the twin—she’s a novelist, too, Emily Jeanne Miller—and my British editor read early drafts, and I specifically asked them to pay attention to anything that smelled wrong, twin-wise, and actually, neither of them had any twin concerns. Then the funny thing was, a magazine editor read an early copy, and I didn’t even know this woman was an identical twin. She said, “You nailed it.” But there’s a part where it’s New Year’s Eve and the twins are at a party and one of them kisses the other on the lips, and she said, “That was totally disgusting, but otherwise everything rang true.”

AG: Yet you kept it in.

CS: I did keep it in. I think by the time she read it, it was too late to change it. Being disgusting wouldn’t have deterred me anyway.

AG: Were you ever tempted to write from multiple points of view? From Violet’s point of view?

CS: No, I wasn’t. I understand why that question would come up. It’s funny, because readers like Vi. Some readers don’t, but a lot of readers think she’s refreshing and funny. But if she were the one telling the story, I think they would not like her. People would find her kind of obnoxious.

AG: Yeah, she’s a great character, but I can see where she’s better from the outside.

CS: Less is more.

AG: Part of what makes her great is how monstrous she is.

CS: Unapologetically monstrous—and the fact that she’s unapologetically monstrous, but she’s not a hundred percent monstrous. I think that she has very endearing qualities.

AG: Like what?

CS: She’s very blunt. She’s very entertaining. She’s unapologetic. She has an ability to enjoy herself.

AG: And yet you feel like if you were with her she might be enjoying herself more than you.

CS: Yeah, at your expense.

AG: Getting to the psychic connection the twins have, their powers—we never find out if there’s an entity behind their psychic abilities, and if it’s a force for good or evil. How did you make that decision, not to explain?

CS: The twins believe that they are psychic, and so essentially the book accepts that they are psychic, and neither the book nor the characters are trying to prove to the reader that they are. They just believe they are, which I think is much more natural. It’s almost like in life we’re most hell-bent on proving things that we’re not really sure are true. I didn’t want to present it in a defensive way, I wanted to present it in a matter-of-fact way.

AG: Is Sisterland your first exploration of nonrealist themes?

CS: It’s funny when someone says that, because now I know whether you believe in psychic ability.

AG: Well, do you believe in psychic abilities?

CS: I’m open to them. So you know, in the book, there’s the character Hank? He basically says there are a lot of things in the world that are weirder than psychic abilities, that we accept as true. There’s a lot that’s not explained about the universe. And so, psychicness is not stranger than that. And I’m in agreement with Hank. It’s not like I consider myself to have psychic abilities. I guess I consider myself at times to have intuition. But I also don’t feel the book is supposed to be an exposé about how psychics are frauds.

AG: I certainly didn’t read it that way. But at the same time it was interesting trying to suss out where the book was going to fall on that issue. I never thought that the book was debunking their psychic abilities, but there were times when intuitions proved to be slippery things.

CS: The book is obviously told in first person from the point of view of Kate, who believes that she has psychic abilities and believes that her sister has psychic abilities. And so the book allows for the possibility, no matter what I personally believe. But there came a point where I realized I do have to come down on one side or the other in terms of how much credibility I’m going to give both the sisters.

AG: Did you do a lot of research about psychics?

CS: I interviewed a psychic years ago for an article before ever writing this, and then I interviewed a different one while working on the book. I went to this New Age bookstore in a distant suburb of St. Louis, where I live. I basically went there thinking, “I’m doing research,” and then I un-ironically bought some crystals. There’s some confusion in my own mind about what I believe. Now that this is my fourth book, I know that writing a novel is not a way to sort out your confusion. I have some confusion about boarding school and what I think of having gone to boarding school, and it turns out that writing Prep did not help me sort out that confusion.

AG: What are you working on now?

CS: Usually I’m very secretive about what I’m doing, but the British publisher HarperCollins has commissioned this project where they’ll have six contemporary writers rewrite each of Jane Austen’s six novels. I’ll be rewriting Pride and Prejudice.

AG: Wow, jackpot.

CS: It’s meant to be fun and amusing. It’ll be set in the United States in the present day. And of course I feel a little ridiculous talking about it, because I understand that I’m not Jane Austen, but it’s—sort of in the way that Clueless is fun, it’s meant to be fun.

AG: Is that a lot of pressure?

CS: It would be pressure if I were saying, “Now I’m going to officially step into Jane Austen’s shoes.” But I don’t feel like that’s what this is.

AG: Sure. And you’ve been at it a long time! You started writing very early.

CS: I did start early. Basically, I started writing fiction as soon as I knew how to read and write. So, whatever, five or six. Then I started being published when I was in high school, which is a double-edged sword. Yes, I have been at it for a while. Now I’m a crusty thirty-seven.

AG: What was the first thing you ever remember writing? The first piece of fiction you ever wrote.

CS: I saw the movie of Annie. I saw it in the theater for my seventh birthday. I remember after that, taking this piece of paper, and—it was actually very Freudian—leaving it on my dad’s desk. It was like: “I am an orphan. My name is Annie.” It was essentially plagiarism. But I believed myself to be writing a story. I would sometimes do research by asking my parents questions. One time I said to them—this was kind of dark—I said to them, “Are people that have cancer not hungry?” And they were very alarmed. They said, “Why?” “I’m writing a story.” I was definitely, obviously weird.

AG: What shaped your tastes as a weird young child writing stories?

CS: My parents would read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books out loud to us, and they also read Stuart Little. We were definitely a reading family, and I loved books. I still feel this way, that a book—and a magazine, too—is what’s interesting about life in this distilled format that you can hold, and there’s something very enchanting to me about that. That it’s interesting stories and pictures, and someone took all this time to strip away the boring stuff, and just give you this story and these facts. If I’m at somebody’s house and they have magazines on the table and people are chatting, I feel almost a physical urge to start reading the magazines instead of talking to people. Of course a magazine is usually more interesting than a conversation, because so much more time and preparation has gone into it.

Discussion Guides

1. What and where is Sisterland? If you have a sister, do you see any of your own relationship with her reflected in the relationship between Kate and Vi?

2. The novel opens with a description of the 1811 earthquake in New Madrid, although everything that follows is set in the near-present. Why do you think the novel begins in this way? How does the historical context change how we see Kate’s story?

3. Do you believe that people can have psychic powers? Have you ever experienced strong intuitions about events that happened later?

4. Do you understand why Kate tries to escape her powers? Would you prefer, like Kate, to be normal, or to be special, like Vi?

5. Kate transforms herself from Daisy Shramm to Kate Tucker. How do names define and shape us?

6. Near the end of the novel, Kate and Vi make an important discovery about their “senses” that upsets everything they thought they knew. Were you as surprised by this revelation as the twins? How do you think it might change their understanding of their childhood?

7. Do Kate and Jeremy have a good marriage?

8. Were you surprised by Kate’s choices at the end? How will her family’s life in the future be different from what it was in the past? Do you think it’s plausible that she can continue to conceal her secret indefinitely?

9. Twins are intriguing to many people. Do you think the interest they elicit is justified? Have you known twins in your own life? If you are a twin, did Sittenfeld’s portrayal of them strike you as realistic?

10. Have you read any of Curtis Sittenfeld’s other novels? If so, do you think this one is like or unlike her earlier work?


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