I'm a twin. I've never not been a twin, which means I can't tell you whether having a sibling your own age is overall fun or difficult, good or bad -- for me it's just the way it is. I've been a twin in many different and contradictory ways: a best friend to my sister, a bitter rival, supporting player, vivid example, even -- painfully -- a stranger.
But while my twin and I are different, as a twin (and I suspect as any sibling), you do end up surrendering huge swatches of your identity to someone who isn't you.
That quality of losing control over your own reflection, and of reflecting someone else, doesn't get a lot of play in the stories we tell about twinhood. Mostly we imagine shared jokes and secret languages, whispered conversations in bunk beds after Mom turns out the light. (Think "The Parent Trap," "It Takes Two," "Fred and George Weasley," the Winklevii). The idea of an uncanny bond finds expression in the trope of psychic twins, which Curtis Sittenfeld brings to life in her shrewd new book "Sisterland" (Random House, $27).
Yet Sittenfeld is acutely aware of how that bond can warp and fray -- tellingly, her twins don't read each other's minds, but pick up on signals from the universe at large -- and the novel ends up approaching sisterhood with the same delicate ambivalence it shows ESP. Both a gift and a burden, twinhood (like psychicness) means intimacy that is sometimes thrilling, sometimes unwanted.
Kate and Violet Schramm, who form the center of "Sisterland," are a study in sensitivity gone awry. Despite their premonitions about the future, they excel at misunderstanding each other (though, of course, no one quite understands Kate the way Violet does, and vice versa). They live in St. Louis, where Kate is married to an aquatic chemistry professor at Washington University and Vi is a professional seer. While Kate, who narrates the book, wants only to live a normal suburban life with her husband and two small children, Vi is flamboyant and brash. When tremors hit St. Louis, she goes on "Today" prophesying a much larger earthquake. The novel follows the aftershocks of that TV appearance, as a horrified Kate tries to perform damage control, though -- haunted by stray apprehensions of her own -- she half-believes Vi is right.
The novel shuttles back and forth between the present day, in which Kate cultivates a friendship with a stay-at-home father named Hank and weathers the storm from Vi's prediction, and scenes from the Schramms' adolescence. Sittenfeld could have plucked these recollected episodes from some universal sibling memory album: the popular high school girl who invites one twin to her sleepover party but not the other (never, ever OK); the sign adorning the bedroom door (the Schramms' says, "Sisterland: Population 2." Ours said, "Do not enter if you aren't Emmy/Katy.").
And she expertly draws out the rivalries and provocations that make every sibling exchange a coded mini-drama. After a party, Kate reports, "I left reeking of cigarette smoke, much of it directed at me by my sister." Naturally.
And yet the narrator, like so many of us, yearns for the tethers that come with having another half. Later, she startles at "the shocking weightlessness of being responsible only for myself." Divorcing your twin is the loneliest thing, like suffering from an existential phantom limb syndrome.
The third person in the room, of course, is Sittenfeld herself, who brings to "Sisterland" the same perceptive, no-frills lucidity she gave "Prep, Man of My Dreams," and "American Wife." She is an attractive writer, though not a beautiful one, with a chatty, thoughtful, somehow elusive voice -- like that of a wise but preoccupied friend.
What she doesn't say crowds behind what she does. And she is funny. "I heard myself say to Ben, 'I'm going to compost the rest of the bok choy,'" Kate reveals at one point, "and pretty much everything I was smug about then was encapsulated in that single sentence."
On a scale of witticisms about bok choy to whimsy, Sittenfeld goes for the leafy green every time. She is not interested in fanciful cutesiness, but rather in the push and pull of the sisters' connection, the alternating dance of irritation and appeasement, antagonism and loyalty. "For more than half my life, I'd been laying the groundwork for my own invisibility," says Kate, "for far longer, in fact, than Vi had been laying the groundwork for her exposure."