[10 March 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters is a delightful and fascinating book about, obviously, sisters. It’s about their interactions and their relationships, with each other, with their parents, with the world and with themselves. It’s also a book about books, and the sisters’ relationships with books.
The three Andreas sisters were brought up in a small college town by their Shakespearean professor father and a somewhat disconnected mother. Each girl was named for one of the bard’s heroines—Rosalind (Rose), Bianca (Bean), and Cordelia (Cordy) — and each has spent her life in the shadow cast by the perceived expectations of her namesake. “What’s in a name?”, indeed.
Rose, the eldest, has rebelled against As You Like It‘s Rosalind by not rebelling. She hasn’t run away, she hasn’t adopted an adventurous disguise. Instead, she has done what she thinks is expected of the first child, she has become the caretaker and organizer for the family, and she has followed her father into academic life at the college, becoming a respected mathematics professor. One could argue that this is precisely how she resembles Rosalind, she has assumed a role that sees her fulfilling duties one might expect of an eldest son. Rose doesn’t quite realize she stays in unspoken obligation to her father. She just sees it as her responsibility to remain.
Her siblings, however, have fled. Bean, it appears, rather heartily embraces both Bianca from Othello, in that she seems to excel in inciting jealousy in others, and Bianca from The Taming of the Shrew in that she revels in being defiant and has always enjoyed many suitors, unlike her older sister.
Cordy, as the youngest, is Cordelia to her father’s King Lear. She is seen by her sisters as the spoiled favorite. She is seen by the whole family, herself included, as forever the child, the one who has not grown up. Of course, she has grown up. All of the sisters have. It takes all three coming home to discover it, however.
Supposedly brought home by the need to care for their ailing mother, each sister is really fleeing from failures and shameful secrets. They are each retreating to the familiar safety of the roles within their childhood household and within the tales they devour in the ever-present books that surround their family home. Books, of all kinds, are how the Andreas clan communicates, often quoting Shakespeare’s plays in place of simpler answers. Books are also how they avoid communication, sometimes using random copies found strewn across the furniture as both shields and security blankets, effectively keeping anyone from getting too close.
You might think that this would make it difficult to understand the characters, if they only speak in symbolic quotations and rarely reveal anything to each other, but Brown has found the most ingenious solution to the disconnection between the individuals. The sisters each have their own voice in the story, but they also have a collective voice, The Weird Sisters of the title, to narrate, comment, fill in and foresee, much like Macbeth’s three witches, the weyward or wyrd sisters. It’s brilliant, witty and wonderful, both as a storytelling device and as a character. The collective sisters get to voice all of the best humorous asides and snarky comments (on a rejected suitor: “Despite his money and looks, he was not a reader and that is the sort of nonsense up with which we will not put”.).
Brown weaves each voice, each character, each thread of plot, into the whole like the fates, upon whom her sisters draw. The Weird Sisters is a magnificent tapestry of a tale, replete with a rich love of language, that beautifully illustrates the pull of family and the ties that bind us together even when we are about to unravel.