Friday, August 26, 2011

Eleanor Brown writes about academic life with a Shakespearean cast.

Any reader might recognize the title “weird sisters” as the three mysterious witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Elizabeth Brown uses it to describe three sisters, all with Shakespearean names, who find they can hardly outlive the force of paternal desire for them.

The Weird Sisters

Eleanor Brown’s astonishing debut novel, The Weird Sisters (336 pages; Putnam; $24.95) concerns three sisters with the names Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia. Literary types will recognize these as the heroines of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and King Lear respectively.

Rose, the oldest, is also the most organized and the most obvious achiever. With a doctorate in mathematics, when the story opens, she has come back to their Midwestern town to teach math in the same college where her father is the beloved Shakespeare scholar in the English Department.

She likes living with her parents for the time being. Her own fiancé, a chemistry professor whom she met when on a gig at the huge state university nearby, is spending the term in England; and she is fully persuaded that her parents need her housekeeping and nursing skills, if only to keep them from tripping over books lying in the hallways or from forgetting to take any of their several pills.

While she is there, her mother has some serious medical complications; and either because of her ill health or for other reasons of their own, the other sisters return home at the same time. Bean (Bianca’s nickname) is fleeing something of a near-felonious disaster at the firm where she was working. A clothes horse and fashion maven, she could not make do on her considerable New York salary, so she was tapping into funds to which she had no right, and she was lucky that her boss only fired her and sent her home without pressing charges. She is responsible for paying back what she embezzled, however, and that is one of her chief worries when she returns home.

Cordelia, on the other hand, seems just to have swept in from living in some commune or other or on the road with groups of young people who live on fast food and drugs of various kinds. Everyone in the family is happy to see her alive, but when she starts eating like there is no tomorrow, they become worried. She needs to gain weight, but this is ridiculous. Very gradually we come to realize that she is pregnant. Her issue—what has brought her home—is her struggle with the decision whether or not to have the baby.

So this assortment of struggles and concerns, played against the father’s posturing and the mother’s ill-health, makes for a fascinating family analysis. The sisters act as a collective narrator, a “we” that comments on each of the sister’s behavior as both typical and (at times) alarming.

In the course of their time together, the sisters relive a great deal of their childhood antics; but they also, for various reasons, each try to grow and change; and the big question that the novel poses is whether such changes, of the purpose of career, companion, or even priorities in taste or opinion can be changed?

The novel would like to posit that they can, and the novelist makes a great case in her presentation of these three sisters. You have to read the novel, though, to decide whether or not you agree with her.

Eleanor Brown

The Weird Sisters
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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