Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown

The Weird Sisters are actually the thirty-something Andreas sisters--Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia, named for characters in Shakespeare's plays. Not coincidentally, their father is a Shakespeare scholar at a liberal arts college in small-town Ohio. Rosalind, a math professor, has never really left Barnwell. When her fiance leaves for a one-year appointment at Oxford and her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, she moves in with her parents to help them and comfort herself.

Meanwhile, the two younger sisters are having serious crises of their own. Bianca (known as Bean) has been living the high life in New York City--financed by stealing from her employers and using her wiles to seduce men who will pay for drinks, dinner, or more. When her crimes are discovered, she escapes to her parents' home. Initially, she tells no one of her difficulties. Also secretive is Cordelia (Cordy) who has been living a nomadic "hippy-style" life but heads for home when she learns she is pregnant.

As the sisters deal with once again living under the same roof and coping with the stress of their mother's illness, they must figure out how their complicated relationships with each other and their parents have both sustained and limited them. Each sister must work through questions about who and what they want to be and where they want to do it. The direction ultimately taken by each sister is signaled fairly early in the book, making the ending rather predictable.

Two aspects of the writing are noteworthy. First, the family often communicates through Shakespeare quotes. While Brown's command of Shakespeare is impressive, the habit becomes a bit annoying (perhaps it is supposed to, as it certainly exemplifies a frustrating opaqueness in the family's communication). Second, the book is written in the first person plural from the perspective of all three sisters. This technique is interesting but ultimately I did not care for it; perhaps if the author had separated the perspectives near the end of the book when the sisters began to find themselves, the technique might have aligned better with what I take to be the book's theme.

Favorite passages:
We came home because we were failures. (The first sentence--and I like it.)

Perhaps you never liked your name. Perhaps you took every opportunity to change it: a new school, for example, where you would test out life with some pale echo of your real name--Elizabeth to Bitsy, wouldn't that be cute? A whole new you. You tried your middle name, provided it was suitable and not embarrassing, as middle names are wont to be. Or perhaps you were one of those poor souls whose well-meaning parents, in honor of some long-dead ancestor, gave you a name no contemporary soul should have to bear. Like Evelyn or Leslie or Laurie for a boy. Or Florence or Mildred or Doris for a girl--not bad names, you understood, just woefully dated, guaranteeing years of playground torture or a feeling you were destined for a rocking chair and an old folks' home long before your time.

Another family might have made preparations. Another mother might have cooked casseroles in Corningware and frozen them, labeled with instructions. Another trio of daughters might have embroidered a hospital gown, written a song in her honor, brought along massage oils and aromatherapy candles to ease her transition. For all Rose's talk, we brought only us. Unsure of what to ask, uncomfortable with the illness of a woman who had nursed us through all of ours, armed with only the books we were reading, and not entirely undamaged and unbruised ourselves. Our mother was inches away from us, but we hardly knew how she was feeling--scared? Sad? Resigned?

Long ago, she had thought bravery equaled wandering, the power was in the journey. Now she knew that, for her, it took no courage to leave, strength came from returning. Strength lay in staying.

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