In an April interview about her latest novel, Claire Messud sparked a furor in the literary Twittersphere. When her interlocutor remarked that she would not want to be friends with the protagonist of “The Woman Upstairs,” the author became incensed. “[W]hat kind of question is that?” she shot back. “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?”
Some pundits found sexist overtones in the question, while others used the opportunity to elucidate the differences between literary and commercial fiction. “[R]eading into persona is a waste of time and life,” opined Donald Antrim, best known for an absurdist novel about a hundred fractious brothers, in a New Yorker magazine blog post. “What’s so bad about the kind of character who would make good company during a six-hour flight . . .?” countered feminist and chick-lit defender Jennifer Weiner on Slate.
Although the novelist Curtis Sittenfeld did not weigh in, each of her four books relies on this tension. Her protagonists want to be liked above all else. They are women whose Herculean efforts to mold their desires to society’s expectations make them anxious, sad, and occasionally monstrous: “Prep,” her debut, follows a Midwesterner’s journey to fit in at a posh New England prep school; “The Man of My Dreams” concerns a retiring young woman out of step with the extroverts around her; and “American Wife,” her third novel, took the formula to a harrowing extreme with a convincing and improbably sympathetic exploration of the life decisions made by a character resembling Laura Bush.
While Sittenfeld’s characters straddle the divide between geniality and actualization, so does her prose: The power of her 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 may be a rich delight, but HER CHARACTERS ARE NOT. So great are Sittenfeld’s powers that the reader finds herself overcome with the urge to reach into her books and grab the protagonists to shake some sense into their simpering little heads. In “Sisterland,” Sittenfeld introduces her most frustrating narrator yet, a character so credulous and so uniquely vexing that most readers will likely want to commit even greater violence against her if given half the chance.
Her name is Kate, and she is a stay-at-home mother of two living in St. Louis, married to a professor at Washington University. She’s a newfangled kind of housewife, a college-educated professional shunted to the sidelines by a dearth of ambition, the rising cost of child care, and anxiety about her children’s well-being.
She spends her days making organic meals and carting her wards to places that will stimulate their growing minds. She lives to please her family, wanting desperately to suck the marrow of the American dream as it is promised to thin, upper-middle-class mothers who are very careful never to misstep. But Kate has at least one key difference that she takes pains to hide from her cohort at the farmers market: She is psychic. So great is her distaste for her abilities that she changed her name from Daisy to Kate.
A story about someone with supernatural powers who learns to accept that what makes her different is what also makes her special should sound very familiar, cropping up as it does in contemporary narratives from “Harry Potter” to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Like that great television show about the tiny blonde with the deadly stake, “Sisterland” both trades in genre clichés and subverts them. Though the novel is impaired by labored plot twists too far-flung for realism and too restrained for satire, it proves to be both likable and worthy.
Every striver needs a foil. Kate’s comes in the form of her fellow psychic and twin sister, Violet, an overweight, late-blooming lesbian who is largely unconcerned with what others think of her and makes her living as a clairvoyant. When she takes to the nightly news to predict a devastating earthquake, she mobilizes the plot: Will St. Louis suffer a catastrophe? Will Kate survive the embarrassment of having a psychic sister with really bad clothes? As the story progresses, Kate’s long-suppressed powers flare up, complicating her careful self-conception as a fiendishly boring homemaker.
Sittenfeld not only skewers the aspirations of the urban gentry but pokes holes in the way the middle-class nuclear family has been demonized in countless postwar American novels. Sure, family life can be miserable — Kate’s daughter is a terror, her husband, both patronizing and emasculated — but its destruction proves horrifying to behold.
Would you want to be friends with Kate? Probably not. But you’ll almost certainly appreciate the way Sittenfeld tears her world apart.