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 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.