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406 - Sisters


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Posted by Mary Ann

One of the best things about Amy Bloom’s “Lucky Us” was its portrait of the relationship between the two sisters, Eva and Iris. Eva is the smart ugly duckling; Iris is the danger-prone glamour girl. Anybody who has a sibling knows what a fascinating, rewarding, complicated relationship it is. Our siblings both inspire and perplex us, but it’s one of the richest of human relationships.

All sorts of novels have been written featuring two sisters. I am going to retire a few to the Sisters Hall of Fame: Jane Austen’s novels “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility.” Austen had six brothers and one sister, so it’s interesting that sisters were such a focus of her work. Jane was close to her elder sister Cassandra, who also never married (Cassandra’s sweetheart died of yellow fever). Cassandra administered Jane’s estate after she died at age 41. And then there’s Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” about a whole family of very interesting sisters, based loosely on Alcott and HER three sisters.

Now I am going to completely jump the rails here and get on to some contemporary novels about sisters.

First up – “The Hunger Games.” From “Little Women” to “Hunger Games” – that is a pretty big jump. But if you will remember, the whole plot of “The Hunger Games” is set in motion when Katniss agrees to fight in the gladiator-style games sponsored by her tyrannical government (a.k.a. The Capitol) because she knows her sister, Primrose, who is thoughtful and sweet in contrast to Katniss’ warrior-like determination, will never survive them. Not the first time, nor will it be the last, that sisterly loyalty has generated a heck of a lot of trouble in a novel.

“The Hunger Games” is an unsettling book. Here’s another featuring sisters – “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson. Jackson was the brilliant author of several creepy books, including “The Haunting of Hill House,” which was made into two very scary movies, and the infamous short story “The Lottery,” which completely creeped me out when I was in the seventh grade.

“Castle,” which was Shirley Jackson’s last book, tells the story of the Blackwood family…or what’s left of them. Merricat, her elder sister Constance, and their ailing uncle Julian live in a large house on large grounds, in isolation from the nearby village. The rest of the sisters’ family members have died under very mysterious circumstances, and Merricat is the only Blackwood who communicates with the outside world. Then a long-lost cousin appears, and he completely upends the fragile peace the family has forged.

This is a book that you want to be sure NOT to read any plot summaries of before you start. I recommend any of Shirley Jackson’s books for that spooky time in October when the light starts to fade and you begin to doubt the evidence of your senses.

“A Thousand Acres” by Jane Smiley. Jane Smiley is a great writer of fiction, but “A Thousand Acres” might have been her masterwork. It won the Pulitzer-Prize for fiction in 1992. It tells the “King Lear” story (another story about sisters!) but resets it on a thousand-acre Iowa farm. An aging Iowa farmer decides to incorporate his farm and hand over ownership to his three daughters. The younger daughter objects to this arrangement, she is removed from it and all hell breaks loose, as a lot of very buried family secrets emerge.

I also want to mention a great novel by an author we have had on the show – Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things.” This wonderful book is about Alma Whittaker, a wealthy young woman of the 19th century who has a passion for botany (in particular, a passion for mosses). She has a sister on a far different life track, but who, despite her serious differences with Alma, manages to support her.

Finally, moving on to London, I must mention an authentically creepy and highly praised novel called “Her Fearful Symmetry” by Audrey Niffeneger, who broke out big with her first novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife.”

This novel, whose title comes from the poem “The Tyger” by William Blake, features not one, but two sets of twins. One set includes Elspeth, a ghost, the other set is a pair of sisters, American nieces, Julia and Valentina, who inherit the ghost’s apartment (the ghost’s identical twin is the twins’ mother) and several million pounds. One twin’s heart is on the right, the other is in its proper place. This is a book about obsession! Thwarted love! Highgate Cemetery in London! Try saying symmetry and cemetery real fast, and see how close they are. This book sounded so delicious, I ran out and picked it up from the library. I was glad I did; it’s a deliciously creepy read, and the lynchpin of the story is the symbiotic relationship between Julia and Valentina who are very close until….they aren’t.

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