I knew very little about Gertrude Stein before reading this — the famous Picasso portrait, Biography of Alice B. Toklas, “Rose is a rose is a rose,” and 27, rue de Fleurus in Paris about summed it up.
I did not know that she had a brother name Leo who was her most intimate connection for years. I didn’t know that he and she collected art together, or that eventually they simply stopped talking. Leo moved out of their shared apartment, and his later attempts to resume contact were rebuffed. He was dead to her. So here we have a wonderful work, combining Paris, art, literature, and family dysfunction. I could hardly have been more delighted.
Wineapple is an academic so the book is researched with phenomenal thoroughness (the footnotes made my head ache, just thinking about all the manuscript letters and journals she had to read). But she’s also a singularly effective and graceful writer so the deadly academic taint is nowhere present. Here’s a sentence from page 2, for instance, that I flagged: “Gertrude and Leo Stein lived among these canvases until 1914, arguing philosophy and psychology and art, reading, writing, painting, reflecting — in short, savoring the privilege of a sufficiently financed life.” Zingg! Beautifully phrased and remarkably discerning.
In fact, Wineapple’s psychological acuity is probably the crucial component of this book. She is generous to both of her crotchety, difficult protagonists. She even has thoughtful comments on Gertrude’s baffling prose and her totalitarian, elbows-out approach to relationships. It’s a wonderful creative attitude, an example of “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.”
But Sister Brother is also formed by a fine sense of drama. After all, it could be argued that these well-to-do, highly educated people did little besides go to school, buy paintings, and argue. What Wineapple manages to do is to make the arguments into what they clearly were for Gertrude and Leo — primal conflicts.
Valedictory sentence: “Leo died one year after his sister, the American failure par excellence who had never been able to bind curiosity to ambition and hurl them toward a single-minded objective.” Wonderful summation of what it takes.