Books: Eleanor Brown's 'The Weird Sisters,' reviewed by Ron Charles

February 15, 2011

This smart, hopeful novel by Washington-born author Eleanor Brown will be the winter's tale for any book lover who likes her entertainment laced with a touch of Shakespeare. A family drama, gracefully costumed in academic garb and lit with warm comedy, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. From Michael Gruber's "Book of Air and Shadows" to Ross King's "Ex Libris" and Karen Joy Fowler's "Jane Austen Book Club," stories about literature are especially delightful to those of us who prize novels above our dukedom. So if you know a Stratfordian who's always quoting the Bard, get thee to a bookstore.

As in Shakespeare's problem plays, in "The Weird Sisters" the curtain rises on a scene that looks oddly comic and tragic: Dr. James Andreas, a renowned Shakespeare scholar, has three daughters (I know you're catching the allusions already, but hang on). When his wife receives a diagnosis of breast cancer, he calls them home to the Midwest with a quotation from "Titus Andronicus": "Come, let us go; and pray to all the gods/For our beloved mother in her pains." And so they move back to their parents' house, these three weird sisters, all around 30 years old, all jealous of one another's success, each secretly convinced that she's a failure.

The title refers to Macbeth's witches, and the sisters' rivalry will make you think of "King Lear," but despite some considerable crankiness, they're not witches or rivals, and their distracted father is closer to Prospero ("The Tempest"), cloistered away with his beloved books on an academic island in rural Ohio. Even though "The Weird Sisters" makes a thousand allusions to Shakespeare, it's no "A Thousand Acres," no modern-day retelling of one of the Bard's plays. Instead, Brown has created her own charming story about star-crossed siblings who just so happen to know the greatest English verse much better than they know themselves.

"We have been nursed and nurtured on the plays," they explain. "Sonnets were our nursery rhymes. The three of us were given advice and instruction in couplets; we were more likely to refer to a hated playmate as a 'fat-kidneyed rascal' than a jerk." They grew up "uniquely good at extemporaneous iambic pentameter," but discovered too late that this was not a skill in much demand outside their father's house. Even their names carry the burden of his obsession into adulthood: Ultra-controlling Rosalind ("As You Like It") refuses to let her career or her life move on; sexy Bianca ("The Taming of the Shrew") has just been fired from her New York law firm for stealing; and carefree Cordelia ("King Lear"), the baby of the three, returns home pregnant after seven years of drifting around the country as a hippie.

The pretense is that they've all come back to help care for Mom, but clearly these three adult children are in a kind of psychological convalescence themselves, shocked by their lives' crash landings, awed by the depth of their parents' love for each other and convinced they'll never find such a marriage themselves. "Would we remain this way, forever and ever?" they wonder nervously. "Would Bean always be chasing one man or another, Cordy eternally chasing some shadow of a person she might never become, and Rose herself chasing some shadow of the way things were Supposed to Be?" How will they relearn to speak to one another, these smart, wounded women who've been trained to communicate their "deepest feelings through the words of a man who has been dead for almost four hundred years"?

The story follows the course of their mother's chemotherapy and surgery, an ordeal that pushes the daughters to consider their parents' mortality and their own prospects. But these darker moments are leavened by strands of romantic comedy, the idealized charms of small-town life and flashbacks to the sisters' delightfully odd childhood in a home where opened books covered every surface.

The novel's greatest risk is its plural first-person narration, a rarely used perspective that works marvelously here. Alternately arch and casual, and always with a touch of comic melancholy, the three sisters together tell the whole story, an impossible "we" that traces each one's private anxieties and indiscretions, and subtly argues for their sisterly union even in moments of strident confrontation.

But I am not barren to bring forth complaints. The language in these pages can sometimes turn flat and cliched, and all the characters outside the Andreas family are merely walk-ons: The old spinster librarian is no more lifelike than my plastic Nancy Pearl action figure; the boyfriend banter is painfully cute and artificial. Despite all the claims about the family's bibliomania, we rarely get to see what anyone is actually reading, and it never seems to affect them any more than knitting or bird-watching might. Which raises a more fundamental problem about the family's devotion to Shakespeare: Brown's characters display a concordance-like grasp of the plays and can always lay their hands on an apt quotation to engage in a little Bard-banter, but they seem oblivious to the heart of these great works, reducing Shakespeare's words to clever slogans, like the Monet umbrellas for sale at the Met.

But let these objections exeunt stage right! Even the Immortal Bard could clot up a great play like "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with some tedious prattle. Brown is such a clever writer, and she's written such an endearing story about sisterly affection and the possibilities of redemption, that it's easy to recommend "The Weird Sisters." Take Polonius's good advice and "read on this book."

Charles, The Post's fiction critic, reviews books every Wednesday.

the weird sisters

by Eleanor Brown

Amy Einhorn/

Putnam

320 pp. $24.95

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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