The Weird Sisters
by Eleanor Brown
(Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, $24.95, PG) ISBN 978-0-399-15722-6
***
I thought I would love Eleanor Brown’s debut novel, which promised bookish sisters, Shakespeare quotes and tangled family dynamics. But while I came away impressed by the author’s cleverness, I didn’t feel a strong emotional connection to the story or its characters.

“See, we love each other. We just don’t happen to like each other very much,” explains the first-person plural narrator who collectively speaks for the three Andreas sisters. Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia were each bestowed Shakespearean names by their father, a professor of the Bard at a small Ohio liberal arts college. Not surprisingly, the sisters have spent their lives defined by their literary counterparts; Rose is the responsible caretaker, “Bean” is the glamorous maneater, and Cordy is the overly protected favorite. Rose is the only sister who lives near their parents, but at the beginning of the novel both Bean and Cordy come home, ostensibly because they have just learned about their mother’s breast cancer.

The truth is complicated, however. Bean has been caught embezzling money from her New York law firm, and flees the city broke and disgraced. Cordy has spent years wandering aimlessly around the country but is now pregnant, making her realize that her Jack Kerouac days are over. Even solid Rose is faced with a crisis when her fiancé, Jonathan, takes a job in England and urges her to join him.

The sisters rub uncomfortably against each other as they ponder their next steps. Rose tries to maintain a long-distance relationship with Jonathan, while both Bean and Cordy struggle to find love and work. At first, old habits and resentments prevent them from helping each other; during their mother’s mastectomy surgery, the sisters can only find comfort in the familiarity of their favorite books. But gradually, in pairs and then as a trio of “Weird Sisters,” they start to connect, once they realize they can move beyond their assigned roles and change their fates.

Debut novelist Eleanor Brown definitely has a lot of talent, but at times she seems to be trying too hard to write something that will impress the critics. The unique first-person plural narration that uses an omniscient, royal “we” details the strengths and weaknesses of each sister with sympathy and an amused tolerance, but also keeps the reader at a slight distance from any one character. Also, the trajectory of the sisters’ growth is too predictable, even if it is done with style and creativity. It’s possible that my expectations were too high – any novel that name drops Edward Eager and E. Nesbit should be so unforgettable that I can’t put it down. And yet I did, many times.

At one point the hyper-literate sisters realize that books have some limitations. “We think, in some ways, we (have been) searching for the book that will give us the keys to ourselves, let us into a wholly formed personality as though it were a furnished room to let.” Books can’t do everything, but they remain special to the Andreas sisters. In a similar vein, I was slightly disappointed by The Weird Sisters, but I enjoyed it and am sure we will hear more from this promising author.

--Susan Scribner


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