Cynical, clueless ‘Sisters’ stunt this family tree

November 17, 2011

This first novel from Nancy Jensen is an extremely ambitious effort to recount American history during the 20th century (and a little further along) through the experiences and perceptions of women. It’s an interesting idea, but Jensen sketches her characters primarily by what they do, rather than what they think or feel. And these women, in general, don’t do very much.

Nevertheless, Jensen follows the fortunes of a large group of women, all in the same Kentucky family, over a period of about 80 years. She defines them by function as well as characterization: Imogene’s function is to have two kids and die, leaving Bertie and Mabel to the horrid sexual abuse of their stepdad. A complication ensues, and Mabel and Bertie are separated. Bertie’s function, then, for hundreds of pages, is to not open letters that are sent to her. Mabel becomes a professional photographer and meets Daisy, who has also been sexually abused, and adopts her.

That’s really enough plot right there, but Bertie persists in hating Mabel, whom, if she’d only open one of those letters, she’d feel better about. Bertie’s an adult in the Depression, actively disliking her husband and two daughters. The older one, Alma, learns to live her life out of magazines and is hideously mistreated by her husband and son. Alma’s sister, Rainey, is so ill-informed about the world that she manages to have sex several times without even understanding that she’s having sex. She works on and off in fast-food establishments and is deeply bitter and resentful about her doltish husband, who, because of another plot complication, is kept from seeing their two daughters. Rainey’s older daughter, Lynn, grows up sharp enough to go to law school. Her function is to be smart. The younger daughter, Grace, has another father, whom Rainey doesn’t feel like talking about. (Rainey’s function is to be dumb as a plank.) Grace, in contrast to her law-school sister, makes chain-mail armor and lives off the land, to the disgust of her relatives. There are a couple of other daughters over on Mabel’s side, but they’re strangely unmemorable, because they’re not “blood” family.

So, leaving aside the men, which the author cavalierly does — giving them no plausible motivation or thoughts whatsoever — we have this cluster of women who are furiously bitter, drenched in the golden glow of self-abnegation, pining for their absent fathers or clueless to the point of coma. But what is the theme here, the meaning? It’s hard to know.

This is actually an interesting book — interesting in the assumptions it makes about women. Feminism washes through these pages like a big, soft wave, but the wave never breaks. These women never change, except in their very last years; they don’t improve or accomplish or have a good time. They spend their time holding grudges, inventing insults or, alternatively, sacrificing themselves. It’s hard to believe a word they say. And the men are either savages (the first rapist stepfather is called “Butcher”) or well-meaning mannequins who lounge about and commit occasional misdemeanors.

Jensen can’t seem to get the car jump-started. These characters never come to life. The author writes in a foreward that her story is based on a mysterious 50-year estrangement between her grandma and a long-dead sister. But in this narrative, events seem not just mysterious but intractably implausible.

See regularly reviews books for The Post.

The sisters

By Nancy Jensen

St. Martin’s. 324 pp. $24.99

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