For those of us who had a womb to ourselves, the idea of being a twin, especially an identical one, has an eerie allure. How strange to share the moment of your birth, to grow up alongside your genetic double, who is you but also not you. With their capacity to be separated, mixed up or, as legend has it, to communicate telepathically, twins present irresistible narrative opportunities, particularly for creators of soap operas and spooky movies.
Despite being about psychic twins, Curtis Sittenfeld’s fourth novel, “Sisterland,” offers neither soapy melodrama nor thrills and chills. Instead, Sittenfeld gently balances supernatural elements with an insightful portrait of modern domestic life. From early childhood, identical twins Kate and Violet Shramm experience what they call “senses.” These extrasensory flashes manifest in a variety of ways — prophetic dreams, mind-meld sister knowledge, sudden certainties — but are not always clear or reliable. By the time they’re adults, the twins are far from identical (Violet is heavy; Kate is not), and they have chosen different lives. Kate, the novel’s narrator, aspires to be a solid, unobtrusive member of society. She is happily married and a stay-at-home mother to a toddler daughter and infant son. Sometimes her old “senses” break through, but she tries to repress them, preferring to be as normal as possible.
Violet, on the other hand, is a professional psychic and an outspoken soul who blithely oscillates between New Agey good vibes and combative selfishness. She sees narrow-mindedness and self-hatred in her sister’s bid for conventionality. After a small earthquake hits St. Louis, where the twins (and Sittenfeld) live, Violet appears on the local news and predicts that another, more powerful quake will happen soon. Kate is horrified. “Of course,” she tells us. “Of course Vi had had a premonition about something big, and of course, instead of taking the time to think it through, she’d called a television station, and of course she’d let herself be interviewed while wearing no makeup.”
Kate and her husband, Jeremy, a chemistry professor, have a close friendship with a couple who live up the street: stay-at-home dad Hank, Kate’s comrade in child care, and geophysicist Courtney, Jeremy’s colleague. Violet’s prediction results in a serious rift in the couples’ cozy relationship, as Courtney had appeared on the same news segment to offer her scientific opinion that there was no reason to worry about another quake. In private, Courtney dismisses Violet as “wackadoodle,” putting Kate in the tricky position of balancing her carefully cultivated normality against loyalty to her twin and her “senses.” A few days later, Kate wakes up in the middle of the night with the date Oct. 16 in her head. That, she believes, will be the date of Violet’s earthquake.
As the portentous day approaches, Kate’s narration alternates between gradually revealing her and Violet’s history (it was no easy thing being an eighth-grade psychic) and telling the central story of how the earthquake prediction complicates her marriage and friendships.
Sittenfeld’s style is clean and fluid, with neither flourishes nor missteps. She builds up detail in slowly accumulating, satisfying layers, and Kate, like the narrators of Sittenfeld’s previous novels “Prep” and “American Wife,” is a fully realized character living in a substantial, recognizable world. The effect of Sittenfeld’s first-person narration is like listening to a long and candid story told by a matter-of-fact but mesmerizing friend. (“The Man of My Dreams,” her second novel, was her only one to employ the third-person voice and was so poorly received that it now seems subject to omertà.) Novelists get called master storytellers all the time, but Sittenfeld really is one, a kind of no-nonsense, BabyBjörn-wearing Scheherazade.
What might be most strikingly excellent about “Sisterland” is the way Sittenfeld depicts domesticity and motherhood. This is a book that neither ignores nor fetishizes diapers and strollers. She makes the mundane interesting by paying attention, showing how everyday tasks and rituals form the patterns of life. Kate is harried sometimes but not in a way that panders to readers by being winkingly “relatable.” Kate is smart but not brilliant, not particularly ambitious, and the novel neither judges nor attempts to elevate her. She is allowed to be ordinary, at peace while nursing or watching her children sleep. “Perhaps it was not the magic of motherhood that I was experiencing,” she says. “Perhaps I just had a greater capacity for inertia than I’d ever realized.” Even Kate’s psychic “senses” come to seem almost natural because of the low-key way Sittenfeld explains them. Everyone has gut feelings and strange dreams; Kate’s just happen to be more significant.
Where do Kate and Violet’s “senses” lead? Enjoy finding out.
Shipstead is the author of “Seating Arrangements.”