Saturday, October 29, 2011
The Weird Sisters
I don't have any sisters. I am the oldest of three children with two younger brothers. I never had sisters, and quite frankly, never wanted them. I thoroughly enjoyed my "only daughter" place in life throughout my childhood. On my mother's side, I was also the only granddaughter until I was about 17, at which point I didn't care any longer about my place in my grandmother's eye and was happy to have younger girl cousins with whom to hang. I now have two sisters-in-law, and one to come next Spring, but I have no blood-bond sisters like the three protagonists of The Weird Sisters.
This lack of background, however, did not detract from my experience of reading the book; instead it made me somewhat of a curious observer. I have seen this kind of relationship with other sisters in other families - that sisters can be simultaneously your best friends and your worst enemies, probably because they know the best and worst of you yourself, better than anyone else, including yourself. It's an interesting dichotomy of human nature and relationships, and that's really what this book is about - life, change, choices, our place in the world, our place in our family, and ultimately, our relationships.
Thomas Wolfe said "you can't go home again." But that's exactly what these three sisters do, all for various reasons - all, as the beginning says, having to do with their failures. Rose has failed to do anything less than exactly what is expected of her. Bean has failed to create an actual life for herself behind the intricate, criminally formed facade she has put up to the world. And Cordy has openly, shamelessly failed to do anything useful with her life, coming home with the ultimate physical sign of failure of responsibility - an unwanted pregnancy. All three of these lives are a product of their own choices, which is made clear, but those choices are also shown to be a product of their placements within their family, and they have simultaneously come to the place of having to reconcile that place within themselves in order to move on with their lives. The fact that this convergence comes at the moment of their mother's diagnosis of breast cancer points them even more to the fact that it is time, quite frankly, to GROW UP.
First, let's discuss linguistics. This book is beautifully, intricately written. I am not JUST talking about the Shakespearean quotes, although I will be honest - those rocked. I wish I could quote the Bard like that. Alas, I am not as quick with the Elizabethan wit. But besides that, Eleanor's Brown elegant use of the English language is melodic. It is like a symphony of words. She picks the most beautiful words that are somehow exactly right - and they create the picture in your head without having to wade through pages and pages of description. It's just...perfect. It's intelligent, but not overly so. I also love the perspective of writing it as "we" instead of "I" or "them." It's the three sisters telling their stories, woven together because that's how families are. You experience life together, even when physically apart. These three sisters are in each other's heads and psyches. Their decisions come from their place in the culture of their family. So the idea of "we" being there in the library with Bean or "we" being in London with Rose is beautifully done. I found myself simply soaking in the blissfulness of Ms. Brown's linguistic ability.
Next - the story. These are women making poor choices with their lives - but it portrayed as such. If Bean was one of these characters who slept around and stole and seduced married men but were perfectly happy with it as if this were all just normal and ok, I would hate this book. But for these girls, there are consequences for their actions. Bean comes to realize she can't find the acceptance she is craving through empty relationships and the then veneer of success. Cordy discovers that maybe living from place to place and guy to guy really isn't all it's cracked up to be - and now she has to face the reality of her life choices. Rose has spent her entire life being responsible for everyone around her, creating a cocoon of security in the lie that everything would fall apart if she went out and lived her life. This too is a terrible choice, and she has to come to a place of accepting that she can't fix it all...and no one is asking her to. Her mother would have had the blood clot whether or not she had been in London. And in her absence, her sisters were finally given the chance to step up - and to everyone's surprise, they not only do so, but they do so with great gusto and success!
I love the complicated-ness of the relationships in this book. They are real and raw without being comical. Everyone has these kinds of relationships in their family. Everyone has these places where they feel they can't live up to their parents' lives - and yet they don't want the life their parents led at the same time. Siblings love each other and are closer to each other than any other person, yet they can also be the harshest towards each other. Relationships with men, bosses, boyfriends, old friends, new friends - all are woven together in the story in a way that makes the reader relate to their complexity without getting confused or sunk in the lives of the characters. Each person is so three-dimensional. I feel like Rose, Bean, or Cordy could walk in my first door and I would recognize them on sight. I hope they never try to make a movie of this book. It would ruin the effect.
Did I agree with everything? Absolutely not. As in most modern novels - and not a few old ones - sex is treated as both a dangerous and casual thing. It never ceases to amaze me how books, movies, and music all react to sex as something that is perfectly all anytime you feel the moment is right, and yet most story lines then go on to explain how those sexual choices get you into serious trouble. I am one of a minority, I realize, who still holds out against pre-marital sex. I personally did, and you know what? Saved me a whole dang lot of heartache. That doesn't get said enough. So I'll say it again: I did not sleep around. I waited until marrying my husband before having sex, and I have one and only partner. And I do not regret one iota of that decision for one moment. I wish others could have experienced what I have experienced in that area of my life, and I wish the Beans of the world would realize that they would not, in fact, "die in a relationship without sex."
In addition, I wish I could sit these women down and explain that the faith they scoff at is there waiting to be their source of strength. It is obviously a source of strength for their parents, but they don't really want to mess with it. I like to think that Father Aidan continues to build a relationship with Bean in which he could approach this and help Bean see that the approval she craves is really found in Jesus. It wasn't that kind of book, but that is reality. All these sisters are looking for something they lost. They can find that in Jesus. But they won't - and I can accept that in fictional characters who don't actually exist. But there are far too many Roses, Beans and Cordys in the world looking for love in all the wrong places.
So, to recap: loved the book. Thought it was great. Wonderfully written, wonderfully told, great story, fantastic characters - and SHAKESPEARE! Now it's your turn. Here are some questions to jump start your response; also feel free to respond to the things I said above:
1. The Andreas family is dedicated to books, particularly Shakespeare. Would the family be different if their father were an expert on a different writer? Edgar Allan Poe, let's say, or Mark Twain? What if they were a family of musicians or athletes, rather than readers? How might that change their dynamic? Is there an interest that unites your family in the same way that reading unites the Andreas family?
Actually, reading unites the family I grew up in, much like it does the Andreas family. We are also bound together by our loves of history and discussion. For my family now, it is yet to be seen, we are still young and finding an identity as a family. Another writer would have changed the tone of the family, I think, but not the dynamic.
2. In many ways, the Andreas sisters' personalities align with proposed birth-order roles: Rose, the driven caregiver; Bean, the rebellious pragmatist; and Cordy, the free-spirited performer. How important do you think birth order is? Do you see those traits in your own family or in people you know?
I think birth order plays a great part in their personalities, and I see that in a lot of families. It's in my own, although not in the same ways. I am the oldest, and I am the driven caregiver. My brothers each have their own responses to their birthplace in the family. I think birth order is very important, although not the answer to everything.
3. Father Aidan tells Bean, "Your story, Bean, is the story of your sisters. And it is past time, I think, for you to stop telling that particular story, and tell the story of yourself. Stop defining yourself in terms of them. You don't just have to exist in the empty spaces they leave." Do you agree with Father Aidan? Is it possible to identify one's self not in relationship to one's siblings or family?
This was one of my favorite passages of the book. We all can fall into the trap of thinking our stories are written for us because of our place in the world, what we are born into. But we can write our own stories - or, even better, let God write our stories for us. Our identity is best found in Him, not in our family or anything else.
4. Is it irresponsible of Cordy to keep her baby?
First, let me say that I breathed such a huge sigh of relief when we got to the end of the book and Cordy did not abort her child. I would not have been able to finish the book if that had happened. That had me so worried. Having gotten past that - should she have given Ariel up for adoption? No, she did all right, I think. Deep down, Cordy knew she would do what she had to do, and she wanted this baby. So no, I don't think it was irresponsible.
5. Why do you think the mother is never given a name?
Wow. I didn't even realize that. Huh. I think it's because the book is written from the girls' perspectives - and think about your own mother. Do you ever think of her by name? Or is she always Mom? I certainly don't think of my mom as Jenny. I think of her as Mom. I think that's why we don't know her name - because, to Rose, Bean and Cordy, she is MOM.
6. The narrator says that God was always there if the family needed him, "kind of like an extra tube of toothpaste under the sink." Is that true, or does the family's religion have a larger effect on the sisters than they claim? How does your own family's faith, or lack thereof, influence you?
I wish the family's belief in God had more of an impact on them than is portrayed, but I don't think it does. I think if they let it, they would find much of what they are searching for. My own family's faith is the bedrock of MY faith, and my faith in God is the cornerstone, the foundation of my entire life. I would want more of that for these girls because I want more of that for EVERYONE.
Start discussing! Oh, and throw out ideas for another book!
Discussion questions taken from: