Monday, April 4, 2011

Review of The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown is one of Spring’s hot new releases.  When I picked up the book, I had a couple of fears.  First, I thought it would be just another dull, depressing family drama.  I have enough family baggage in my own life.  Why would I want read about this family when I barely want to be part of my own? 
My other reservation about this book is that I suspected it was Chick Lit being marketed as literary fiction.  Why should I fear Brown’s novel is over-hyped chick lit?  Because putting Shakespeare in stock characters' mouths won't make it a “serious literary work".  First, we have Cordy, the youngest sister, a wandering free-spirit who sleeps around and can’t settle down.  We have Bianca (aka Bean), the middle sister, a shopaholic who steals to support her clothes addiction, drinks fancy cocktails in NYC clubs, and who also sleeps around.  Finally, we have Rosalind, the eldest sister, who is an approaching-forty, dowdy-feeling professional woman who can’t let go of her control issues.  Brown gives us three Shakespearean-monikered characters, each of whom represents an archetype in the Chick Lit world. I refer you to an article called Bad Chick Lit Novel Clichés.  Brown includes 4 of the five Chick Lit situations in her novel: the shoe addiction, the surprise pregnancy, the sister’s wedding, and the “OMG, I’m turning 30!” crisis.  But don’t be put off Brown's novel yet – read on.
Now that I've gotten my catty pre-judgments out of the way, let me tell you about the reality of Brown’s story, and why I liked it:
  • The Andreas family unit is a character in itself, and an interesting and fun character it is.  The entire family loves books, picking them up and discarding them as they move about the house.  That they are avid readers defines them as a family and unites them, in spite of their many differences.  Dad’s obsessed with Shakespeare, Mom’s mind is always elsewhere (but she’s still loving in her way), the three sisters have their places: Rose the Reliable, Bean the Beautiful and Bad, and Cordy the Calming and Calamitous.  Brown’s portrayal of birth order dynamics is incisive.  I found myself nodding my head as I remembered how these dynamics worked with my two sisters and me.  Sometimes we’d pair up and leave the other one out.  My oldest sister would pal around with the middle sister and talk about boys, but I was too young to be included.  When my older sister went to college, my middle sister and I grew close in our resentment of her pricey tuition.  And when the eldest sister married, I was maid of honor because my middle sister was less than enthusiastic about the wedding.  Brown describes such pairings and unpairings in The Weird Sisters.  This is a woman who knows the ins and outs of sisterhood.
  • Book Phantom with sisters and bunny ca 1974
  • The point of view is unique and artfully handled –Brown moves from a collective first person voice (“we”), back to third person limited.  The “we” is the group mind of the three sisters, and this combined consciousness adds depth to the narrative.   It’s not an artificial literary device.  Oftentimes, when an author uses a POV gimmick, it is awkward and jarring for the reader.  Not so with Brown, who changes POV with such skill, I barely notice it’s happening. 
  • Brown’s use of back story is seamless.  Each back story is relevant to the present plotline.  It never sounds expository, and it develops the collective-sister "character". 
  • The father’s character was more believable than I expected.  Brown doesn’t just use him as a device to show off her own cleverness and Shakespearean scholarship.  Each verse of Shakespeare in Dad’s mouth contains a nugget of wisdom, and I was relieved to find that his daughters sometimes found it as cryptic as I did.  This was intentional – Brown doesn’t spoon feed the reader – she allows us to chew on the words of the Bard, just as her protagonists do – we are forced to engage ourselves in the story. 
  • The characters were multidimensional.  They have both faults and virtues aplenty. The father is distant most of the time, with his nose always in a dusty old tome.  Yet we get touching glimpses of him when he cares for his ailing wife or when he springs advice on his girls.  Although the mother seems to be in her own world and somewhat negligent, we come to see she is truly a good mother because she lets each of her children “just be”.  Rose is paralyzed with fear when she's not in control.  She can’t cope with new situations, and we learn that the control freak isn’t always as strong as she seems.  Bean is truly deplorable with her stealing and lying and sordid affairs, but she proves that people can change if they are determined to do it.  And Cordy, my favorite, is the irresponsible one, yet always the peacemaker who brings levity to the serious scenes.  In spite of her messy life and her lack of direction, she has a reliable internal compass that never leads her astray from her own true self.
  • Brown’s tale is not about shoes, sleeping around, finding Mr. Right, or even weathering personal crisis – although all of these are plot props in the story.  Ultimately, The Weird Sisters is about growing up, getting older, living and dying, seeing your parents through grown-up eyes, finding you can change yourself and your life. The characters learn from their own aging that change is inevitable; therefore, they learn to embrace it.  Brown’s themes are important, not fluffy.
  • The family drama in The Weird Sisters is far from dull or depressing.  Sure, there is conflict, but it is funny and moving, never annoying or tiresome.  When Bean and her father talk about his life and his choices, she has the epiphany that her parents won’t be around forever.  In spite of her dad’s quirks and his shortcomings as a parent, she knows she’ll miss him. It is a touching scene, where a hard and selfish person who places so much worth on material things suddenly recognizes the worth of her family.
  • The only flaw I saw in The Weird Sisters was an awkward device at the beginning of the book.  Brown divides the first chapter into Act 1 and Act 2, but she doesn’t use acts in any other chapter of the book.  Where were Acts 3-5?  I wondered if she had forgotten she’d done this in the beginning and left out the other acts unintentionally.  Or is there some deeper meaning?  Is it that the characters knew what the first two acts of their lives brought them, but the final acts are an unwritten mystery they must play out?  Eh, I think that’s a bit of a stretch.  Let’s call it editorial oversight.
Other than this last inexplicable device, Brown’s story is tightly written.  It is funny and moving. I fell so in love with the Andreases that I wanted to be a part of their family, even with its drama, rivalry and selfishness.  Get yourself to the bookstore and get a copy of The Weird Sisters.  I guarantee you’ll want to call your mom, your dad, and your sisters when you’re done.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I didn't realize how many chick lit cliches were in this book! That's very funny. But I do agree with you -- I think the book ends up being a lot more than the cliches might have you think, and I enjoyed it a lot.