Sister Act

Julie Glass
Julie Glass (Gino Domenico/ap)
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Reviewed by Donna Rifkind
Sunday, January 4, 2009


By Julia Glass

Pantheon. 287 pp. $24.95

"Art grows from much more than family drama," muses one of the characters in Julia Glass's first novel, Three Junes. True enough, yet without family drama there would be no Three Junes, which won the National Book Award in 2002. Set in Greece, Scotland and New York, and exploring the emotional lives of several generations of a family, Three Junes satisfied, for many readers, the itch for an expansive, multi-layered, brazenly sentimental novel that addressed contemporary domestic issues in an appealingly old-fashioned way.

Glass's new novel also makes family drama its business and uses some of the same structural techniques as Three Junes. (A novel in between, The Whole World Over, appeared in 2006.) But the experience her new book offers readers is strikingly different. A tale of two sisters, I See You Everywhere ranges more widely across time than Three Junes, whose action spanned the decade between 1989 and 1999. The new book covers 25 years, beginning in 1980, in the lives of Louisa and Clem Jardine, who are dissimilar siblings in every way. Louisa is blonde, prickly, Harvard-educated and urban, working as an editor at an art magazine in New York after a brief career as a potter; Clem, four years younger and darker, taller and stronger, is a roving and somewhat messianic wildlife biologist. "Imagine Jonathan Schell and Rachel Carson as Siamese twins," Louisa says. "That's my sister at her worst." And that's Louisa's tone throughout the book, as she competes with Clem to serve as the book's narrator.

"If you're to hear Louisa's version of what went on last summer," warns Clem, "you will also be hearing mine." Yet Glass takes care to emphasize that, judgmental and competitive as these sisters are, they are also indispensable to each other. "I want to outshine her, I want to be the wiser, the smarter, the better loved," admits Louisa about Clem, "but I want to keep an eye on her. She is, after all, irreplaceable."

What is the source of the Jardine sisters' rivalry? As they reveal in dueling anecdotes, their childhood seems to have been happy enough, a sophisticated, outdoorsy idyll in the key of L.L. Bean. They grew up near the Rhode Island coast with a brisk, feisty mother who raises champion foxhounds and a mild-mannered father, the transplanted scion of an old-money New Orleans clan who runs three boatyards and grows premium roses. Both girls know that Clem has always been her mother's favorite, with Clem's habitual recklessness inspiring more worry and more devotion than Louisa's more predictable caution. For this inequity Louisa will never forgive her sister, finding fresh grievance with each new proof of her mother's partiality.

Disappointingly, we see these interesting parents only in glimpses, as Glass has locked herself into a narrative structure designed to keep our attention on the adult standoff between Louisa and Clem. To this end, she strings together a series of episodes with alternating points of view that meander along for a while, then trail off into a vapor. Louisa offers a bitter view of her disintegrating marriage to a nice but boring history teacher, while Clem, who leaves a trail of devastated boyfriends behind her, confesses that she wants Louisa's marriage to last, not for her sister's sake, but for her own. ("I need Louisa to be with this placid, loyal man.") And Louisa delivers sharp disapproval as Clem discards those boyfriends -- romantic figures with names like Zip and Larney -- and roams the eco-preserving world, moving impulsively from a Vermont raptor sanctuary to a seal station on the Labrador coast to a grizzly bear surveillance site in Wyoming.

The stop-and-start effect of this structure might lead some to regard Glass's book as closer to a set of linked stories than a novel, but to me it reads like the same novel starting over and over again, a wearying process in which Glass's sprightly prose -- the "glutinous drawl" of New Orleans relatives; an earnest young East Village artist who "dresses in apologetic browns"; Louisa's "deep, corrugated breath" during an emotional moment -- becomes stifled.

Why did the episodic structure of Three Junes and The Whole World Over seem so expansive, when it feels so constricting in her third novel? I think the answer lies in the new book's she-said/she-said design, in which Glass insists on illuminating each sister in the other's reflection. Things loosen up a bit in the second half of the book, when several serious crises briefly permit the reader to stop acting as an arbiter between the quarreling siblings and to concentrate on a single character who isn't being defined, for the moment, by another.

"As we grow older," Louisa thinks, "our tragedies diminish in their grandeur." Yet the opposite is true here: Only when Glass confronts her characters head on, in their later years, do they begin to spark the reader's sympathy. Before then, despite their picky complaints about each other, they seem distractingly indistinct, dwelling in each other's shadow. I looked and looked, but couldn't see them anywhere. ยท

Donna Rifkind reviews frequently for Book World.

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