The high-concept gimmick at the heart of Curtis Sittenfeld's 2008 best-seller, American Wife, was a heroine modeled on first lady Laura Bush, from her involvement as a teenager in a car accident that left a close friend dead, to her marriage to the wisecracking black-sheep son of a prominent political family who ends up becoming president and presiding over a calamitous war in the Middle East.
The high-concept gimmick at the heart of Sittenfeld's new novel, Sisterland, is the premise of twin sisters who have strange psychic powers that enable them to foresee the future. One twin tries to suppress her ESP; like Samantha, the nose-twitching witch in Bewitched, she just wants to live life as a suburban housewife. The other sister cultivates her gifts and becomes a professional psychic; she gains national fame when she warns that a terrible earthquake is going to hit the St. Louis area and is interviewed on the Today show.
In both books, Sittenfeld's gifts for portraying the inner lives of her heroines manage to transcend the silliness and contrivance of her plots. Sisterland might start out sounding like a sort of cloying Alice Hoffman novel, full of stage-managed whimsy, but it ends up being a lot 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.
The sisters in Sittenfeld's novel are Daisy and Violet Shramm. In her quest to be ordinary, Daisy has changed her name to Kate, and she narrates this story from some point in the future, looking back on events she describes with a mixture of nostalgia and regret. She has married a nice, smart, handsome professor named Jeremy, who teaches aquatic chemistry at Washington University; they have two toddlers on whom Kate dotes with nervous pride.
Kate looks down on her sister Vi as a willfully contrarian flake who, ever since dropping out of college, has grown increasingly eccentric. She has little patience with Vi's talk about her "Guardian" — a mysterious entity who gives her messages from the spirit world — but she tends to believe Vi's premonitions because she still has similar visions herself, despite her best efforts to suppress them. She once collaborated with Vi in helping to find a boy who had been kidnapped, and she worries that Vi's predictions of a devastating earthquake might come true.
Sittenfeld's depictions of the Shramm sisters can be as schematic as those that differentiated Patty and Cathy, the identical cousins on the 1960s sitcom The Patty Duke Show. In this case, Kate is thin (or thinnish), Vi is heavy; Kate is straight, Vi is gay; Kate values privacy and discretion, Vi revels in her newfound fame as a psychic. Their relationship with their depressed mother, who died young, is sketchy, as is their monosyllabic relationship with their father, who, they learn, also has some sort of ESP.
But if the outlines of the Kate-Vi dynamic are baldly diagrammatic, Sittenfeld nonetheless manages to make their day-to-day relationship palpably real, capturing the alternating waves of loyalty and passive- aggressive competition that animate their every exchange. She shows us the anxieties and insecurities that underlie the choices the sisters have made throughout their lives, and makes us feel the weight of shared history they carry in their hearts — the humiliations they suffered in high school (not unlike those depicted in the author's debut novel, Prep) and the almost mercenary brusqueness with which Kate has tried to separate herself from Vi since they headed off to different colleges.
Sittenfeld proves equally adept at capturing the rhythms of Kate's daily life with her husband and their children: the joy and exhaustion of caring for two toddlers, the sense of safety and sexual electricity Jeremy still inspires in her, his stoic patience with her bouts of anxiety and dread. The author gives us an Updikean portrait of life in Kate and Jeremy's comfortable St. Louis suburb that is every bit as well observed as the world of private school evoked in Prep, and she credibly evokes the ever-shifting arithmetic of their relationship with their best friends, Hank and Courtney Wheeling, who live down the street.
Is Kate secretly drawn to Hank, a stay-at-home dad whom she and her children see almost daily? Is there something going on between Jeremy and Courtney, who are colleagues? Will Vi's predictions of an earthquake come true, or is she projecting her own neuroses onto the world? Will her celebrity as a psychic change the trajectory of her life, or will it somehow upend Kate and Jeremy's safe suburban world?
Although Sittenfeld's orchestration of such plot points can be predictable and ham-handed in the extreme, her portrait of Kate — much like her portrait of the Laura Bush-like heroine of American Wife — is so psychologically vivid that the reader easily overlooks the slick story line. For all its problems, Sisterland is a testament to the author's growing depth and assurance as a writer.
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House. 400 pp. $27.