CURTIS Sittenfeld came to prominence on both sides of the Atlantic with her daring and provocative 2008 novel American Wife, which was loosely based on the life of Laura Bush but was really a study of the marriage of opposites.
Here, her heroine, Kate Tucker, is happily married to Jeremy, a university professor, with two children, Rosie and Owen, having given up her job to be a full-time mother after Rosie suffered a serious illness.
Sittenfeld plays her against her twin, Vi, who hasn’t “settled down”, is flexible about her sexuality, doesn’t have a nine-to-five job and floats through life like a free spirit. The novel opens with the sisters arguing over their different lifestyle choices.
It becomes clear that the tension between them is long-held and that it has developed from the special talent they inherited: they both have “senses”, that is, they see events before they happen. Kate predicted the early death of a schoolmate while still at school; a few years later, Vi located a kidnapped boy. But whereas Kate has long since renounced her “senses”, Vi has made a career out of them.
It’s St Louis in 2009, and after a small earthquake occurs, Vi goes on local TV to announce she has “seen” another earthquake coming. She is pitted against a professor of geophysics, Courtney Wheeling, who just happens to be a colleague of Rose’s husband, and who denounces Vi’s predictions as ridiculous. The situation is further complicated for Kate by the fact that she is watching her sister on TV in the Wheelings’ sitting room. Courtney’s husband Hank is a house-husband, caring for their daughter Amelia at home.
There’s a great deal to digest in this 400-pager: Courtney’s and Hank’s is a mixed-race marriage, a fact that will matter later in the novel; Kate and Vi’s mother was a depressive who constantly slept, leaving her young daughters to make dinner every day, and may have committed suicide; Courtney has a second pregnancy that she terminates because of evidence of Down’s Syndrome; Kate has a “sense” the earthquake Vi has predicted will occur on a day when Jeremy is away at an academic conference, and rows start between them as she pleads with him not to leave her on that day.
There’s a soap opera element to much of this, concerned as it is with the secrets and lies of relationships, and while the narrative is pulled along by the slow build-up to the prediction date, there are occasions when it almost stops dead, halted by flashbacks to Kate and Vi’s school or college days, or the domesticity of the present, which is mired in nappies and baby feeds. This is Kate’s tale, not Vi’s (we only see her through Kate’s eyes), which means that Vi is always necessarily the “other” to Kate’s standard, the ‘alternative’ lifestyle to Kate’s more conventional choice.
That’s fair enough, but it means that the cataclysmic event Vi has predicted and which Kate “senses” will happen is ultimately a domestic one, a reflection of Kate’s life.
It’s also a little too easily resolved. I couldn’t help wondering what a writer like Marilyn French would have done with the scenario Sittenfeld has concocted here, and why so much of contemporary women’s fiction seems to have divested itself of politics.
There is great deal here that reaches out to the political – what does it mean for a bright, college-educated woman like Kate to stay at home with two small children? Are childless women automatically and forever to be pitted against those who have children? What happens to women’s aims and ambitions when they marry and have children, and is society helping or hindering them?
Sittenfeld once took a political wife and peeked behind the scenes to the domestic; here, she could have opened up the domestic to the political. Ironically, it might have made for a more urgent story than an impending earthquake. «