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The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

picture of book cover

While The Weird Sisters follows three sisters, deep down it’s a book about being a parent.

Rose (Rosalind), Bianca (Bean) and Cordelia (Cordy) are all named after Shakespearean heroines, courtesy of their father, a professor of the Bard who raised his family in a college town in Ohio. In a half-quirky, half-annoying style he talks largely in quotes from Shakespeare, hence the trio is summoned home with “Come, let us go; and pay to all the gods/For our beloved mother is in her pains.”

The novel is told in the first-person plural, a literary trick that pays off as the sisters’ lives unfold and they struggle to figure out what’s next. Rose, as the eldest, is stuck in her role as family caregiver and martyr, largely due to having a mother who might start making dinner and then wander away to read. It’s always been up to her, or so she thinks, to keep everyone from going off the rails. Bianca is the family’s striking beauty and troublemaker, who recently ended what she would like everyone to think was a glamorous life in New York. The youngest, Cordy, is the one who has been adrift, throwing in her lot in with what sounds like fans of Phish, a carefree nomad who discovers early in the book that she’s pregnant.

All of the decisions of the sisters are cast through a lens of growing up in a family that reads constantly yet struggles to express affection or anger. “Here’s one of the problems with communicating in the words of a man who is not around to explains himself: it’s damn hard sometimes to tell what he was talking about,” the sisters muse at one point about their father. “Look, the sheer fact that people have banged out book after article after dramatic interpretation of this guy should tell you that despite his eloquence, he wasn’t the clearest of communicators.”

Family dysfunction and quirky characters are not new territory for first-time novelists, but what sets Eleanor Brown apart is her insightful writing. I can’t remember seeing another modern author tackle the floating life Cordy has led and nail down the negative side of people “desperately trying to find some lost Kerouacian glory.” “The people she had met had been kind, certainly, but not a natural kindness, more of a benevolence stemming from a cocktail of illicit substances and a quiet, frantic desire to be liked,” Cordy realizes.

Like The Three Weissmanns of Westport, The Weird Sisters feels like it’s part of a new wave of what I think of as high-brow chick lit, or for those who hate that term, good readin’ with female protagonists. Strongly recommended for fans of Susan Isaacs, Elinor Lipman and Ann Patchett. It would also be good for a book club.