Thursday, August 11, 2011

"The Weird Sisters" - a delightful, and not so weird, debut novel

If you ever visit Wellington Square Bookshop in the Eagleview Corporate Center, Exton, you may have the pleasure of encountering a couple of well-read, book-knowledgeable women who have great recommendations for books and run a lively monthly book club discussion, at which you sit in a circle of comfortable chairs, sip wine or tea and munch on cookies and find insights into the book you just read.

During one of the book club discussions I attended this spring at this charming little shop (sad to say I haven't made it to a meeting in a while), Judy and Nancy, who run the meetings, sang the praises of "The Weird Sisters: A Novel," by Eleanor Brown (Putnam, 2011, 320 pp., $24.95)

"If you have a sister, you'll want to read this," they said of Brown's first novel.

1) I have a sister (who, I'm happy to say, reads my blog)
2) It's hard to find a really good book, and
3) I'm pretty suggestible

... so I kept the book in mind. Months passed, and recently I finally got my hands on a copy. And yes, just Judy and Nancy promised, it was a indeed a good read.

"The Weird Sisters," (named for a line in "MacBeth"), are Rosalind ("Rose"), Bianca ("Bean"), and Cordelia ("Cordy") Andreas - the daughters of a Shakespeare scholar father and a free spirited mother. Named for The Bard's characters, the three seem to be carrying their beautiful names like curses when we first encounter them.

Their mother's breast cancer, and other misfortunes, bring the adult girls together to live in the family home in the sleepy small college town in Ohio in which they were raised.

Cordy had been living on the road with a crowd of drifters, not eating enough, sleeping around and going where the wind took her when a force of nature brings her home to Barnwell, Ohio. Bean was working for a high-powered law firm in New York City, when it came to the attention of her employers that she was using the firm's funds to pay for her couture clothing and high-society lifestyle and she was summarily dismissed, with the understanding that she'll pay the money back. Rose, the oldest, was home to help their mother with her chemotherapy and radiation, while her fiance works in Europe. She seems to resent the role of caretaker (of everyone in the family) as much as she can't bear to relinquish it.

Bring the three sisters together, and like magic, they revert to their old roles: Cordy, the youngest, the cute one; Bean, middle child, the slut; and Rose, the oldest, the scornful second mother.

The author describes her idea for the novel as this: "Three very different sisters and their belated coming-of-age." Brown, incidentally, has two sisters of her own.

When the sisters are bad, they're pretty hurtful to one another. They fall into those automatic roles forged in childhood and never quite grown out of. And there are some authentically painful moments depicted in Brown's prose.

In one scene, Rose recalls a night when she was 15, Bean was 12 and Rose was 9, and somehow the younger two convince Rose to take them out to the local ice cream joint in the family car when their folks aren't home. The discover how freeing it is to get away with an innocent joy ride on a magical summer night. Of course, they don't get off scot free. On the way home, after Rose lets the middle sister, Bean, drive so she doesn't feel left out, a deer jumps in front of the car and she strikes it. No one's hurt but the deer, but the moment seems to cement them into their afoermentioned roles. Rose vows never to be carefree again. And that's what seems to happen for the next couple of decades.

"We think about that night often, but what comes back to us isn't the terrible ending but how free and happy we were together, and how we felt like together we could do anything, rule the world, and damn the consequences We remember the open windows, the breeze pushing hard against our skin, howling into the night ... and we wonder where those girls went, if they died with the doe that night on the road, or if they would have disappeared anyway."

The sense of regret, bewilderment, loss of innocence is palpable.

It's not that their family life is bad. Their parents are loving, their home is lovely, they all were able to attend the local college, presumably for free. They all love books and read incessantly, though the father only reads The Bard. But the younger two found ways to escape from home immediately after college, while the oldest stay rooted to become a college professor herself. Resentments grew amongst all three.

Of course there are happy moments, and just regular everyday moments in the book as well. And the messes made throughout the story seem to tie themselves up rather nicely by the end.

Brown's writing is clear and thoughtful and true. The Shakespeare metaphor (the Andreas sisters' father and the sisters themselves are always, always quoting Shakespeare) gets tedious pretty quickly. I admire Shakespeare, but no one's going to know/recognize all these references. But Brown seems to know that even used in an over-the-top manner, the device is effective.

I did get thrown off by a lot of the book being told from the "we" standpoint. The novel is written in first person plural, narrated from the collective perspective of the three sisters. Got used to it after awhile.

The mother's illness brings it home to the three sisters what it means to be responsible for themselves. Sounds kinda heavy, but there is some levity as well.

Worth a read.

Click here to read an excerpt via Google Books.
Check out Eleanor Brown's book site here.

About the author:
Born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Eleanor Brown lives in Colorado with her partner, writer J. C. Hutchins. Her writing has appeared in anthologies, journals, magazines, and newspapers. "The Weird Sisters," her first novel, hit the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and national Indie best seller lists.

Incidentally, the Wellington Square Bookshop book club next meets Wednesday, August 17, from 2-4 p.m., and again on the 18th from 7 to 9 p.m. to discuss this month's pick, "The Lonely Polygamist" by Brady Udall. Click here for more info.


Belgie said...

The story is deeply engaging and right from the beginning I felt as if I was connected with the characters. I both felt sympathized and got angry with all three women and their decisions. Even though we don't meet Cordy until a bit later on in the book, I felt as if I already knew her through Bean and Rosalie's views. Each sister holds a sad story but eventually overcomes it and finds a better and new outcome in life for herself.

Click to View Website said...

I really like the title and the cover, for some reason. It sounds very intriguing--love forcing myself out of my reading comfort zone.