Friday, March 11, 2011

Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters

Since unknown books don't always pan out for me, I decided to play it safe. The reviewers were unanimously positive about Eleanor Brown's debut novel, The Weird Sisters, a poignant homecoming comedy.  The premise is simple, even common.  Three 30ish sisters return to their hometown in Ohio to care for their sick mother, who has breast cancer. The divergence from the familiar is in the details. The sisters, raised by an English professor father and a bibliophilic mother in an idyllic college town, quote Shakespeare to one another, though out of context.  

Is the novel good or is it fey?  A little bit of both.  

Three troubled sisters return home, regress to their childhoods, confront one another about their weaknesses, and have revelations that change their lives.  Brown makes her story unique by casting two of the daughters as prodigals and mixing first-person plural with third-person singular point-of-view. Sometimes the style is effective, other times it is disorienting. "It was our fault, probably, the way we'd always babied her. Or maybe it was our father's fault--Cordelia had always been his favorite....She was the Cordelia to his Lear."  Some of this is lovely, some too obvious.

The three sisters read, read, and read.  They read wherever they are.  Brown endearingly describes their reading habits, though she seldom tells us what they're reading.  Her musings on reading kept me reading, even when the characters didn't interest me. 

The eldest sister is Rose, a spinsterish math professor who can't leave home and dithers over joining her cute fiance in England; Bean (Bianca), a thief who got fired for embezzling funds from an office in New York; and Cordy (Cordelia), a nomad hippie who follows bands and has spent years greasy-haired on the road (Brown impressed me with her description of the dirt).  

Rose is perhaps the most realistically portrayed.  As a perfectionist, she doesn't get along very well with anybody, but she needs to take care of her family.  Rose is the one who has taken the trouble to care for her mother with breast cancer.  When the other two come home, she is a bit perturbed.  She loves Barnwell and would love to teach there.  Her sisters hate Barnwell.  But Rose's boyfriend has taken a job in England, and she doesn't know that to do.. 

Thirty-year-old Bean is the bad girl who has been to New York but fucked up big-time. Not only did she embezzle, but she spent it all on clothes.  And now that she is back in Barnwell, she has an affair with her favorite professor's husband while the professor is out of town.  She has no loyalty. How did she come from this mild family? Brown tries to explain. 

Cordy is the centered one--Brown tells us so.  Having shoplifted a pregnancy kit in the desert (her first theft), she comes home because she has nowhere to go. Cordy weathers her pregnancy and charms us with her conciliatory skills. But let me say right now that I am unsympathetic to post-feminist tales about single women whose problems are solved by pregnancy. I can't help but agree with Cordy's father that an unemployed nomad should have an abortion.  But Cordy takes a job as a barista...will having a baby fix everything?

The portrait of the mother, her illness, remoteness, and exhaustion, is perfect.  Their father seems almost too much the absent-minded professor.  And this is part of the problem.  The characters are sometimes just types.  To be fair, Brown concentrates on making Bean real near the end. So much energy goes into this portrait that the others are evanescent by comparison.

The novel is reasonably well-written, the kind of medium-good book I associate with light summer reading. But the book would have to be much stronger for me to want to spend time with Bean and Cordy, who, though they are fellow readers, have little to offer with their blurry, compromised morals. Somehow this light novel, with its less than light conflicts, annoys me.   And let us just say all three sisters end up with a unique relationship to theft, and I'm wondering where that comes from.  

The Weird Sisters probably has a sell-by date of age 30.  Not bad, but certainly not as good as the publicity made it sound. 

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