Eleanor Brown’s debut novel The Weird Sisters has been on bookstore shelves for over two years, and spent a dozen or so weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, accomplishing an enviably strong opening for a new kid on the shelf. Such a strong opening, in fact, that Brown has been compared, and quite favorably, to Jane Smiley, Julia Glass, and Beth Henley. The temptation to compare The Weird Sisters to other novels is, in fact, compelling, but to do so is to look through a glass darkly and risk losing sight of the author’s innovation and (pardon the pun) novelty.
Brown’s motif — the works of William Shakespeare and more specifically, King Lear (despite the titled lifted from characters in the first act of Macbeth), is as solid and worn as the stone steps of Dunsinane, but the author takes to heart Ezra Pound’s counsel to “make it new.” Reviewing a novel about family dynamics nearly always entices the reviewer to cite the Anna Karenina principle…. that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Eleanor Brown fortunately has spared my readers from this worn comparison by writing about an essentially happy family that is happy in its own way.
Rosalind, Bianca, and (of course) Cordelia, the daughters of a formidable professor of Shakespearean Studies, have converged on their parents’ home, each bearing her own burden that foreshadows a potential tragedy. The family communicates in the quotes, similes and metaphors of the Bard, and Brown’s narrator speaks in the first person plural – the voice of all three sisters. An unusual voice, and one that has garnered both praise and scrutiny for the author, and by imbuing her protagonists with that language of Shakespeare and a collective omniscience, she has created a world in which her characters own a precision of language that allows them to use words like “pre-prandial” and “aspersion” without self-consciousness or guile.
Linguistic precision and impending tragedy aside, Brown’s novel is smart and funny, an exceedingly adroit balancing act for a work that draws its inspiration from some of the greatest tragedies in the English language and addresses twenty-first century topics such as cancer, promiscuity, theft, and adultery. These are the villains of contemporary drama, not Goneril, Regan, or Lady Macbeth. Brown’s sisters are likeable, as is their family, and as readers, we want them to succeed as we glide through the author’s seemingly effortless prose. On close reading, however, Brown’s prose is anything but effortless; “there are worlds in her words” – a characteristic her narrators attribute to one of the novel’s characters.
The Weird Sisters is a novel written on levels. On one level, it’s a perfect little summer read: A novel that captures the essence of American life in the early (pre-cell-phone) 21st century: the poses we strike, the games we play, the designers we love. At another level, Brown presents her audience with an homage to Shakespearean formulae, but made new. The familiar central themes are there, grounding the novel in what has gone before, but Brown reconstructs them with the psychologies of birth order and personality. Multiple story lines intersect and dissect in unexpected places, and time—the past and the present—becomes a character in her own right.
© Marianne Erickson 2013