Eleanor Brown, “The Weird Sisters”

I fought against The Weird Sisters. After reading Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times, I thought, “That’s one I’ll skip.” Then a friend gave me a copy, saying, “I thought this might be interesting for you, being one of three sisters.” Yes — but who’s to say Eleanor Brown was going to get it right? Then I was drawn in by the quotation on the cover: “See, we love each other. We just don’t happen to like each other very much.”

So I started reading. The novel’s premise is artificial, borderline annoying. The three sisters in question are Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia, named after Shakespearean heroines because their father is an eminent Shakespeare scholar. He teaches at a small liberal-arts college in Ohio. (I pictured Oberlin or Kenyon.) The family is bookish in the extreme, given to quoting the Bard to each other, frequently vanishing into any volume within reach.

this guy looms over the proceedings

This much of the exposition had me squirming. It struck me as forced, twee, self-admiring. Strangely, though, Brown’s choice of a narrative voice didn’t rub me the wrong way, and it certainly could have, because she chose to tell the story from the point of view of All Three Sisters at Once. A daring choice, but it paid off.  When only one sister is concerned, it’s a straightforward third-person narrative (in that sister’s consciousness). When the girls share an experience, it’s “We thought… we knew.” Bear in mind that the “weird sisters” of the title refers to the three witches in Macbeth and you’ll understand that Brown gives the trio a slight air of  uncanny power as well as an appealingly wry, witty spin on the action.

The Weird Sisters is really about what the girls, as individuals, lack. When Brown says that sheer force of will “could not make Rose brave, could not make Bean honest, could not make Cordy sensible,” I was reminded of The Wizard of Oz, with each character traipsing to the Emerald City in search of that missing ingredient. But in this novel the Yellow Brick Road leads the three sisters home to Barnwell, Ohio, two of them punch-drunk with failure, as their mother suffers from breast cancer.

So, yes, it’s all somewhat schematic. For instance, Rose the super-responsible eldest has never left Barnwell because she felt she had to take care of her parents. Cordy, the youngest, the flake, has been on the road for seven years. But those birth-order cliches do often ring true, don’t they? And Brown is a good writer. She brings the sisters to endearing, infuriating life. She’s fabulous on the material stuff: food, clothes, the way people sit, the weather, the smell inside the car on a summer night. She has a wonderful ear for dialogue and a tart sense of humor. So finally, around page 275 out of 300 I just relaxed and gave in to the story. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll love the (probably, eventual) movie. But — note to author — lose Mr. Shakespeare next time around.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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15 Responses to Eleanor Brown, “The Weird Sisters”

  1. Judy Fireman says:

    Carol: You’re giving Janet Maslin a run for it! Your review of THE WEIRD SISTERS is charming, informative, and nicely funny. Kudos to you.

  2. Annie says:

    Sometimes schematic works. I loved Jane Smiley’s ‘A Thousand Acres’ and thought that it taught me things about ‘King Lear’ that forty years of Shakespeare study had failed to impart. This sounds a bit too contrived though and not having the excuse of being one of three sisters myself, I think I’ll pass.

  3. carolwallace says:

    And Eleanor Brown is not Jane Smiley — nor, to be fair, is she trying to be. This is not a novel of ideas but of emotions. Enjoyable but probably not durable.

  4. Custos Libros says:

    Dear BGoO,

    How do you feel about the three sisters of Downton Abbey?

    BTW I received a very amusing note recently from one tenor, regarding another.

    • carolwallace says:

      Dear Custos, I have been too busy watching football to embark on “Downton Abbey.” (Plus: no TiVO. We are TV-handicapped around here.) PBS seems to think their audience doesn’t overlap with the NFL. I am probably the only person watching the post season who thinks Mike Tomlin has beautiful skin. Have to save Julian Fellowes’ latest for DVD. BTW did you see he is now a member of the House of Lords? Someone must have a sense of humor…

  5. carla says:

    So glad to have your review. I was slightly intrigued by review in NYT, but didn’t know if I could handle the storytelling from three points of view at once…I’m interested enough to give it a go — though use of “Mr. Shakespeare” will surely “pluck my last nerve” as my southern grandmother used to say!

    • carolwallace says:

      Yes, Carla, I will say it walks the edge between appealing and annoying. But it is intensely readable, and some of the business between the characters is actually quite moving. Quick read, in any case.

  6. Carolyn says:

    This sounds interesting and since I haven’t read anything Shakespeare related in a while, I might enjoy it. Also I see from previous posts you’re joining Virago Reading Week — welcome!

    • carolwallace says:

      Yes, Carolyn, I’m already dug into my first Virago: hope to post this evening. It’s actually quite bracing after the user-friendly quality of The Weird Sisters!

  7. I have been hearing lots about this novel. Being one of five sisters it definitely interests me. Thanks for the review!

  8. carolwallace says:

    Oh, Lisa, I’m glad you saw the review: I meant to draw your attention to this one since your blog indicates you’re reading together. I think you guys would really enjoy it — oh, and there’s a lot of bread-baking! So there’s your recipe link, too!

  9. motheretc says:

    I was actually looking for this book in my library catalogue just yesterday, but my library doesn’t have it. I might just give them a copy of your review, which I loved, in support of my request for them to order it.

    • carolwallace says:

      The Weird Sisters just came out in the U.S. — I got my copy from a friend who’s a professional book reviewer. You’re in the U.K., aren’t you? There may be a lag before foreign editions appear. It will be worth waiting for, though! I’m regretting having sent my copy to my niece because now I want my husband to read it.

      I liked your review of “Knight of the Cheerful Countenance.” What would we do without Molly Keane?

  10. motheretc says:

    Thanks! I’m actually in Canada, and don’t know how publishing dates here compare to those in the U.S. and U.K. I don’t think the dates coincide in all cases. I will be keeping an eye out for this book though!

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