I just finished Eleanor Brown's new novel The Weird Sisters,and now I'm alternating between trying to decide how many copies to mail out to friends and stewing over what to read next. Whatever follows, it had better be this good. I actually savored The Weird Sisters, lingering over it before leaving for work in the mornings. I even waited a few days before finishing the last chapter because I didn't want to get to the end. This is a habit of my mother's which I have never understood until now. But these sisters struck a chord with me. The title of course alludes to the three elusive witches from Macbeth, which is I why I picked up the book in the first place. If there is anything remotely witchy about them, it is that people love these girls (and you will, too) despite their flaws. Each sister feels she has failed her life in some way and has returned home to her family's university town, where their mother has been diagnosed with cancer and their quirky father reigns as an eminent Shakespeare professor. Cleverly, the narrator is the voice of all three sisters, collectively looking down at their lives with omniscience and empathy.
What enchants me about their story is the family's devotion to literature. Their father hides behind his Riverside Shakespeare, but he lovingly and somewhat cryptically quotes the Bard to his children at every possible opportunity. "You speak like a green girl, Unsifted in such perilous circumstance...Tender yourself more dearly," he writes to his most free-spirited daughter, who has just revealed - well, you'll have to read the novel. He references Shakespeare at breakfast, lunch, and dinner; he has named his daughters Cordelia, Rose (Rosalind), and Bean(Bianca). I am sure there are many things this father would sorely wish for his daughters, each of whom is in the throes of an identity crisis, but he can't possibly be disappointed by the way they have inherited his love of reading and language. As different as the sisters are, they toss Shakespeare's lines to each other like sophisticated slang; they leave half-read novels all over the house; they never leave home without a book in tow. This collective love for literature is one of the ties that binds them, even in the worst of times.
As I read this novel, I couldn't help thinking back to my own childhood and the boxes upon boxes of musty hardback books that my sister and I would bring home from Given's Books, a local used bookstore. Our father would drive us over to this dimly lit store on the far end of town to load up a box of whatever suited our fancy. He never censored a thing (Gone with the Wind in elementary school? Why not?), but he definitely steered us toward his own favorites at times. I don't think it was a coincidence that by high school I had read all The Hardy Boys and the Thomas Hardy novels. My sister and I would plow through our box, and then we'd return those books for credit and fill up again. As different as my sister and I are, magically we both loved to read, and we shared the same bad manners of trying to sneak books at the dinner table.
In The Weird Sisters, the three return home because they need to simplify and order their lives again. They return to the start, which is, among several things, a return to books and Shakespeare. Maybe this is what resonated most with me: turning to books as much for solace and escape as for structure. A return to order. A way to simplify.