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Plenty to enjoy in author Curtis Sittenfeld's 'Sisterland'

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Author: Curtis Sittenfeld

Publisher: Random House, $27, 397 pages

By Kevin Nance
Saturday, July 27, 2013, 6:29 p.m.

The high-concept premise of “Sisterland,” the wise and often wickedly entertaining new novel by Curtis Sittenfeld (“American Wife,” “Prep”), might lead some readers to expect a sci-fi or fantasy yarn. If so, they will be largely disappointed — although they might find plenty of other things to admire.

Not that readers who like a dollop of genre fiction to spice up their literary consumption will be put entirely out of sorts. “Sisterland” does center on twin sisters, Kate and Violet, who once shared certain psychic powers, in particular clairvoyance and the ability to learn other people's secrets.

Violet has embraced her gifts, making a career for herself as a sort of medium, while Kate has suppressed her own abilities to make herself as “normal” as possible as a suburban wife and mother of two children.

When Violet goes on television to predict a major earthquake in the St. Louis area where they live, Kate is beside herself, and the fact that Violet is pursuing a romantic relationship with another woman doesn't help. Things get even more complicated when Kate — who isn't nearly as “normal” as she pretends to be — puts her comfortable existence, including her marriage, at risk with an unwise extramarital adventure.

Fortunately, this relationship between the two sisters is strong enough to survive earthquakes of all sorts, literal and otherwise. And it's here that Sittenfeld — who has made a name for herself as an able miner of human folly in all its most colorful variations — excels.

In the end, “Sisterland” is not about psychic phenomena, seismology or any of the other attention-getting topics it dips it toes into. It's about love and family, secrets and the imperfect ways they're kept, and the necessity of accepting that we can't always behave in the way most consonant with our own best interests. We do dumb things, and we have to learn from them and live with them as best we can.

Readers who have siblings — especially women with sisters — will likely come away feeling as if the author really is psychic, able to learn the truth of their own dark secrets, and forgive them.

Kevin Nance is a contributing writer for USA Today.

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