Thursday, April 28, 2011

Kate Recommends: The Weird Sisters

Reviewer's Note: I usually like something about everything I read, but I will probably most often be writing about books I liked overall. These are really meant to be less "review" and more "recommendation." Oh, and of course "Ways for Kate to Remember What She Liked Reading." Enjoy!

The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown
2011, Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam

As I am now reading quite a bit, I've been getting a lot from the library. Let's face it: M.F.A. doesn't stand for "Multitudes of Financial Assets." So when I heard about this book, or read a review somewhere, I dashed right off to the Cambridge Public Library. Turns out I dashed in vain, because it was a month before my name came up on the reserve list and I got my copy.

Anyway. It was worth the wait.

Growing up with a Shakespearean scholar for a father, in the world of the Bard, the Andreas sisters never watched television, nor did they leave the house without something to read. But it is almost only this - and their perchance for quoting Shakey - that they have in common: Rosalind feels she holds the family together single-handedly, Bianca escapes for the big city only to find herself sabotaging her own dreams, and Cordelia, the youngest (and favorite, they all agree), flits around the country aimlessly until she is forced with more than she can handle alone.

"We came home because we were failures," the book begins, and the stress of their mother's cancer and their own personal crises unravels in the following 300 or so pages. It's a homecoming story - a rediscovery of one's past, one's hometown, the idea of one's identity in a family unit, and how to achieve happiness within all of that. The sisters must come home to face their parent's mortality, each others secrets, and ultimately, their own issues.

So here's what I liked:

I like stories like this, in which characters find ways to see rebirth in what they had always found boring and commonplace, so I found myself very comfortable with the premise immediately. I try to do a bit of this every time I visit a town I used to live in, when I have the chance.

I also liked the style of the book. Each chapter and section is from the perspective of a different sister, but the novel as a whole is really narrated by all of them, and the collective first person ("we") provides not only insight and characterization, but also flavor. I can imagine it was a natural decision for Brown, and her comfort with the form made it feel very natural for me to read.

The story's setting, fictional college town Barnwell, Ohio, reminded me so much of the towns of my high school and college years, and I honestly wondered if Brown used Granville as a model city (I later read in this Columbus Dispatch review that it was "Kenyon and Oberlin, with a bit of Wooster thrown in." - I was close.) It made me a little nostalgic, to tell you the truth.

And then of course there's Shakespeare - from Shakespeare class in high school and college, to a three-week Drama in England trip in 2004, to my own Arden Complete Works of Shakespeare on my shelf, it was a bit of a no-brainer that I would appreciate that the Bard featured in this story. One can really draw a fine line, however, between integrating classic Shakespearean themes and quotes into the world of strong characters, and alienating readers who might not be so brushed up by making the story all about his work. I thought Brown did a fine job of letting the characters run the show, and I don't think readers would find the book any less enjoyable without recognizing certain themes or placing from which play each quote was pulled.

Overall, I think I might have waited two months, and I will be picking it up in paperback.

Read For: Unique Writing Style, Lovable Flawed Characters, and Shakespearean Indulgence.

Book Memory and Reviews

I have the extraordinary luck of having a spring/summer position that affords me the time to read. Great, I think - time to expand my horizons of literature, maybe even time to store a few craft ideas away for when I teach writing someday.

Which would be a fabulous idea, if I could just remember what I've read.

Just last night, as I tried to make a list from memory, I got stuck on one title: I could pull up a character's name, the plot, even the ending, but not the title or author. Luckily, the character didn't have a very common name and Google found the book in one try. But that snag, along with the blank stare I usually give people when they ask for a book recommendation, is why I should probably start writing such things down.

I usually talk myself out of doing book reviews on this blog because I think, "Well I got that book from the new section at the library, but it's been out a year already," which is a dumb excuse considering a lot of people get their books out of the new section of the library. Also, I think, "I don't know how to write a book review," which is even dumber. [sarcasm] If there's one thing I hate, it's learning how to write something. [/sarcasm]

So keep on the lookout for my take on The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown, coming to this blog near you soon. And by soon I mean hopefully later today or tomorrow.