It’s always tempting to believe that a good writer can elevate any material. It’s the literary equivalent of saying of a singer, “oh, he could sing the phone book”. The reality, of course, is that we don’t want to listen to a singer sing the phone book. It’s only when a great singer sings a great song that we stop and think, damn, he’s good. Because you simply can’t extricate the artist from his material.
With that in mind, Sisterland is Curtis Sittenfeld singing the phone book.
What’s immediately evident in Sisterland is that there’s an amazing amount of polish to Sittenfeld’s prose. This is writing as writing should be done. The characterization is rock solid. The detail of the mise-en-scène is utterly convincing. Every plot point is carefully established, so that nothing in the narrative feels forced.
Unfortunately, this careful, elegant prose cannot elevate mediocre material. Sisterland is, by turns, banal and depressing, simply because its storyline is banal and depressing. Following the unremarkable lives of a pair of twins from St. Louis, Sisterland’s trek towards a climax, which involves a strangely-uninspiring subplot about a psychic prediction, feels slow if not downright sluggish.