Monday, June 6, 2011

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

Reviewed by Jeanne

Rose, Bianca and Cordelia are the titular sisters, children of a Shakespeare scholar and his wife. After growing up in a small college town, they’ve gone their separate ways. Now that their mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer, each sister returns as is her nature: Rose rushes home to act as caretaker; Bean flees for home from a secret shame; and Cordy, tired of drifting, wanders home.
And that is where Brown begins to weave her magic.

In one of my earlier incarnations, I worked in the YA/children’s section. In that capacity I read more “teen problem novels” than I care to remember. In fact, I can’t remember them. There was always a teen suffering from alcoholic parent/unintended pregnancy/serious illness/runaway—well, you get the idea. Not all these books were bad, it was just that so many were formulaic, paint by the numbers tales that most just ran together in my mind. So when I read a book description about three sisters whose troubles drive them home, I was underwhelmed. And, it must be said, a bit intimidated. Sure, I’d loved that Shakespeare class in college in which the professor explained all the jokes but that was thir—er, several years ago and I didn’t remember all that much. I didn’t want to read a book and feel like a cultural illiterate.

Then the glowing reviews started, saying this is a book for people who love books, who love a touch of magic, who love literature and complex characters and beautiful writing. And, someone added helpfully, you really didn’t need to know all about Shakespeare to enjoy the book.

The reviews were right.

I was drawn in from the very first, a bit reluctantly. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know these sisters who seemed to have made such a mess of their lives and who didn’t seem inclined to change but then they charmed me with the wonderful way they use words, and I ended up falling in love with them all. Each sister feels defined by her role in the family, embracing or rebelling against her position, each certain that the other is the favored daughter. Their parents are loving but a bit disconnected: the father with his absorption with the Bard, the mother in a gentle world of her own populated by books and family. The girls have carved out their own roles in an effort to stand out: Rose is the one who takes charge, sure that everything will fall apart without her, and equally certain that no one else is capable of handling things. Bean is the rebel, the child who would try anything, grown into a woman who values appearance above all, who must be the sleekest, most fashionable person in the room and is both snarky and truthful. Cordy has been the more passive sister, siding first with Rose and then with Bean as the spirit moved her, willing to let her sisters set the agenda.

This trip home will be a revelation, changing them all in ways they never expected and asking them to reconsider and recreate themselves. The fun is watching them do it. I found I identified in part with each sister, and cheered them on enthusiastically.

Yet the book doesn’t drip with self-importance or bury its characters under the weight of Literature with a capital L. They do toss around Shakespearean quotations with abandon, but it’s still understandable; in fact, if the quotations weren’t italicized, I’m not certain I would have recognized that many were quotations except for an odd word or phrasing. Those that are a bit obscure are explained as in this scene in which the father says he’d like to speak to the girls about something but seems to have a hard time starting:

“He coughed.
’Marry sir, ‘tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers: therefore he that cannot lick his fingers goes not with me,’ he said finally.
‘Um, what?’ Bean asked.
‘I think what your father means is that since breast cancer may be hereditary, it’s important that you do self-exams,’ our mother said, patting his hand as he nodded uncomfortably.
Oh. Right. We’re sure that’s exactly what Shakespeare was trying to say.”

The most interesting literary device was the narrator who embodies the three sisters, telling us a bit about how each feels while remaining detached. This voice sounded familiar but it took awhile for me to remember why: it’s similar to the device used in The Waltons, when the voice of the adult John-Boy would reminisce, looking back to a time in his life with the perspective years can bring. It’s effective but non-intrusive.

Like Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, this is going to be one of those books I’ll be recommending to folks for years to come. Look for a copy in Adult Fiction under the author's last name.

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