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Sister, Sister

Suburban Psychics in Sisterland

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CURTIS SITTENFELD has made a career of writing about mixed-up females: an insecure boarding-school student in her debut novel, Prep; a twentysomething afflicted by shyness and low self-esteem in The Man of My Dreams; a first lady married to a terrible president in American Wife, a fictionalized portrait of Laura Bush. Her newest continues the trend, and it is simultaneously her most conventional and her most unconventional novel to date.

Sisterland is set in St. Louis. It focuses on a mom who has happily given up her career to stay home with the kids, while her kindly scientist husband provides for the family. Oh, and it's about psychic twins who can predict earthquakes.

Kate and Violet are twins—Kate's the stay-at-home mom, enjoying her domestic responsibilities, while free-spirited Violet dabbles in lesbianism and works as a freelance psychic, honing the supernatural abilities that both women have had all their lives. But here's a twist: Twins are often endowed with the ability to read each other's minds, but that's not what's happening here. Kate and Violet can't communicate telepathically, but they can predict the future, and when Violet predicts a massive earthquake will hit St. Louis, she becomes the center of a media storm and a doomsday countdown.

Sittenfeld's writing is unobtrusively perceptive, peppered with revealing asides. Where Violet embraces her psychic abilities, Kate has suppressed hers; musing on Violet's desire to have her abilities recognized, Kate thinks, "This is one of the most confusing parts of life: that even when confronted with an amplitude of evidence, we find it impossible to believe that others want what we don't or don't want what we do."

With Sisterland, Sittenfeld lifts the hood on a whole host of issues: parenting, race, relationships, and the panic economy that sees the media lashed into a frenzy every other week. The book isn't really about psychic powers: It's about anxiety, and trust, and figuring out how to handle the bad things that are coming down the road for all of us. As such, Kate's token earthquake preparations—she stocks up on bottled water and takes the paintings off the walls of her house—stand in for the pitiful bulwarks we all sandbag into some semblance of safety and security in this world.

Did I mention it's funny? It's also very funny.

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