The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown tells the story of three adult sisters who return home to be with their parents while their mother undergoes treatment for breast cancer. The three young women are in three radically different positions. Rose, the eldest, feels responsible for her family and refuses to leave her aging parents to go visit her fiance in London. Bean has come home from the big city after getting in trouble at work. And Cordy's hippie ways have been interrupted by an unexpected pregnancy. As they come together again after years on their own, the sisters heal their previous rifts and their confront their own personal demons. Although they are already out of college and fully independent, all three of the sisters have a lot of growing up to do.
In many ways, the plot sounds like a fairly traditional example of "chick lit"--a label that many readers may see as an enormous condemnation. Although I'm not a reader of chick lit (unless you count the novels of Austen, the Brontes, Woolf, and Welty), I don't condemn the genre. Plenty of people who dismiss chick lit would howl at some of the trash I read to unwind. (Just because I love reading the classics doesn't mean I'm turning in all the volumes on my mystery shelf.)
Still, for those of us who like to be a high-falutin' in our reading, it is worth noting that The Weird Sisters goes far beyond that genre of popular fiction aimed at women. First of all, the emotional fallout of the plot is fairly sophisticated. Brown's prose, with a few exceptions, is fluid and poetic. Perhaps most interestingly, she uses an unusual narrative technique--first person plural--which is surprisingly successful. All in all, I enjoyed the book quite a bit.
Of course, my favorite part is the conceit of using Shakespeare references throughout the novel. The sisters are the daughters of a Shakespeare scholar who spent so much of their youth quoting Shakespeare at them that they can't go through a minute without a line or reference to explain their circumstances. Even their names are inspired by Shakespeare: "It's unlikely that our parents ever looked up any of our names in one of those baby name books. The Riverside Shakespeare had obviously been the repository of choice." Rose is named for Rosalind in As You Like It, Bean is Bianca--named for the character from The Taming of the Shrew, and Cordy is Cordelia from King Lear. As children, their father would play sonnet round-robins where each would compose a line until the sonnet was finished. As the author writes, "The game did...make us good at extemporaneous iambic pentameter, not that this is a skill that benefits one much in any world other than our father's." Their father, of course, uses the magic he finds in his books to conjure a world apart from the craziness of modernity--much as Prospero does in The Tempest. It is only when the storm of the mother's illness forces real life to the fore that all the members of the family come to a point that they can grow beyond their caricatures.
The book is very much not a retelling of any Shakespeare play or theme. You won't leave this novel with a new lens into the bard's oeuvre. Strangely enough, it is the intense seriousness of the Shakespeare allusions that bothers me most about this book. The incredible humor and silliness that so many Shakespeare folks have--as seen by folks as diverse as the Reduced Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare Geek, and Bardfilm--is utterly missing in the sisters' dialogue. I must say I missed the wit.
I definitely recommend Brown's The Weird Sisters--but don't go in thinking you're going to get something you are not. Instead, appreciate the author's exploration of the meanings of both sisterhood and emotional growth.
Thanks to Amy Einhorn Books of the Penguin Group for sending me a copy of The Weird Sisters for review.