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BOOK REVIEW

‘Weird Sisters’ bond goes beyond Bard

By Diane White
February 10, 2011

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Eleanor Brown’s likable, gracefully written first novel, “The Weird Sisters,’’ is narrated, in part, in the first person plural, the three Andreas sisters speaking with one voice. It’s an unusual device, one that might give the impression that the three agree more often than not. They don’t. They are three very different individuals. “See, we love one another,’’ they point out early in the story, “We just don’t happen to like one another very much.’’

There’s a lot not to like about each of these sisters, especially at the beginning of the novel, before the plot works its magic to force the Andreas sisters to grow up.

Their father, an English professor who teaches Shakespeare at Barnwell, a small college in rural Ohio, raised his daughters to follow his example and punctuate their lives with lines from the Bard. “The Weird Sisters’’ is, of course, a reference to the three witches in “MacBeth.’’ The sisters explain that the word Shakespeare originally used wasn’t exactly “weird,’’ i.e., supernaturally strange, but closer to “wyrd,’’ which means “fate.’’ “And we might argue that we are not fated to do anything, that we have chosen everything in our lives, that there is no such thing as destiny. And we would be lying. . . . Our destiny is in the way we were born, in the way we were raised, in the sum of the three of us.’’

As if to seal their fates, the professor also named his daughters after characters from Shakespeare: “And though we have tried to escape their influence, they have seeped into us, and we find ourselves living their patterns again and again.’’

Rosalind, known as Rose, is the dependable eldest. She teaches mathematics at a Columbus University and is engaged to be married. Her life has been steady, predictable, just the way she likes it. But now her fiance has accepted a research position at Oxford and wants her to move to England. She may be 33, but she’s not sure she’s ready to leave home.

Bianca, called Bean, the wayward family beauty, has been caught stealing from her employer, a small Manhattan law firm. She squandered the money on clothes, jewelry, and living the high life. Ashamed and remorseful, she flees New York to hide out in her hometown and try to find some way to make restitution.

Cordelia, Cordy, the youngest and her father’s favorite, has been aimlessly wandering around the country, crashing here and there, doing drugs, having casual sex. She discovers that she’s pregnant by a man she barely knows. Then she receives a letter from her father, a page copied from “The Riverside Shakespeare,’’ with a line highlighted, “Come let us go; and pray to all the gods/ For our beloved mother in her pains.’’ Her mother is sick. Cordy heads home.

The three sisters converge on Barnwell to support their mother, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Brown uses the illness as a plot device, a catalyst that provokes changes in each sister, but she’s never heavy-handed. The first person plural voice gives way to the third person, as each sister’s story unfolds. It sounds tricky, but it works smoothly.

“The Weird Sisters’’ is replete with Shakespeare allusions, some of them funny, as when one of the sisters, bent on shoplifting, whispers to herself, “Strike up the drum; Cry ‘Courage!’ and away.’’ But Brown never lays the Bard on too thick. This is a story about family, about three sisters finding their separate yet interconnected ways in the world. It’s a novel about becoming an adult, at last. Readers who enjoy reading about fraught family relationships, especially among sisters, will find it irresistible.

Diane White is a freelance writer in Georgetown, Ky., and can be reached at duxwhite@aol.com.

THE WEIRD SISTERS By Eleanor Brown

Putnam, 320 pp., $24.95