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"?