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Sometimes it takes only one element to move a novel from mainstream fiction to contemporary literary fiction. For Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters, that one element is her ability to use plural first person so effectively and movingly in a story of three sisters who find their way home.

The Weird Sisters has a distinctive voice that is entirely captivating. While each of the three sisters, who share billing as the main characters, is the focus in an overseeing narration, the words used are not third person omniscient or the standard first person, but the plural "we" and "us". This is the story of all three sisters, not a trio of stories. This literary device is one of the most charming features used to make certain each of the sisters takes her rightful place within the novel.

This is a wonderful book. It is charming, humorous, poignant, sniffly-inducing, heartwarming and has not a whiff of saccharine or tweeness. That's brilliant for a debut novel about the trio, who are named after Shakespeare characters by their professor father, and who return to their small college hometown when their mother is diagnosed with breast cancer.

And here's why this is a wonderful book: Rose (Rosalind), Bean (Bianca) and Cordy (Cordelia) are both alike and different. Their characters' names are reflected in their personalities and stories yet they are hardly mere copycats of their Shakespearan inspirations. They do, as the cover copy says, love each other but cannot stand one another. They are rivals and best friends.

Rose, the oldest, has stayed near home. Her mother's illness is the best excuse she has to hightail it from the university up the road, where she is a math professor who has just learned she won't be granted tenure, back to the nest. Her fiancee has just landed a visiting teaching job in Oxford. And she prefers to stay in her little Midwest nest becaue she's the one who knows how to take care of situations large and small. In vignettes from throughout their lives, Rose is the one who knows how to cope. The advantages and drawbacks of this to herself and the rest of her family are woven throughout the novel.

Middle daughter Bean has had a seemingly glamorous life as a singleton in New York City, drawing men in with just a look and wearing only the highest of fashion. She's fired for embezzling and comes home not only for her mother's sake, but also her own. Bean has a long journey before she learns that taking a cold, hard look at one's own flaws is only the beginning. She is in for some surprises, but the author makes them a perfect fit.

Cordelia, the youngest, the baby, is a determined free spirit. She's been living on the road for years and comes home just in time to discover what kinds of roots she needs and craves. As with her older two sisters, nothing in her story is forced.

Shakespeare's Rosalind becomes Ganymede in As You Like It before returning to herself to marry Orlando. She gives herself over to circumstance and is fully self-aware during the play. Brown's Rose fights against what life throws at her, continually trying to have things her way, or how the way she thinks she wants them. Unlike the heroine of the play, Rose isn't the kind of person to flaunt conventions; she craves them.

Unlike Shakespeare's Bianca, Bean has struggled with being compared to the good sister while living it up in the big city. When she returns home, she immediately seeks out a new man and, eventually, discovers what she really loves. Although there are points of connections, as with the other two sisters and their Shakespearean namesakes, Bean is not a Bianca copy. Bianca is the one who says, "If you affect him, sister, here I swear I'll plead for you myself but you shall have him." (The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, Scene 1)

Cordy has perhaps the largest burden of a name. Cordelia. The Cordelia. The one who refused her father's bidding, who was banished and who received the reward of coming back to offer to care for him. The daughter who went to prison with her father and who was hanged. What's a free spirit to make of that kind of name given by parents who love you? Cordy tries to shake it all off and go her own way until the power of family calls her back.

In addition to the trio of siblings, both parents are fully realized characters, as are several people in town who the sisters meet or come across again. Their interactions are the very stuff of regular community life. At the same time, knowing what one knows about the sisters makes many of these encounters fraught with tension and possibility.

Brown has so perfectly captured what it is like to be one of three sisters is proved by the fact that the reader does not need to have sisters to understand the family dynamics. It's likely many will realize there have been times in their lives when they have been just like one, then another, then, yup, all three sisters.

Another aspect of the novel that is both uplifting and comforting is the way that books and love of literature are incorporated into the everyday lives of the characters:

How can we explain what books and reading mean to our family, the gift of libraries, of pages? Even at Coop, the tiny professor-run cooperative school we'd attended, a refuge of overly intellectual families, we were different. "What do you mean you don't watch television?" one girl ahd asked Bean. ... She remembers only the strange furrow to her brow, signifiying the complete and utter incomprehension at the idea of a life without.

Except to us, it wasn't a life without. It was a life with. For Rose, a life where, after our weekly trip to the library, she cleared the top of her dresser and set out her week's reading, stood them on their ends, pages fanned out, sending little puffs of text into the air. One of her friends, a little girl with sunken blue eyes and parchment skin, laid her costume jewelry out in the same way, and even then, Rose had recognized the metaphor, standing in her friend's white wicker bedroom, looking at the sparkle of paste, to her, dull by comparison. For Bean, a life where the glamour and individuality she sought was only the gentle flick of a page away. For Cordy, always slightly detached no matter how many people surrounded her, clucking for her attention, a life where she could retreat and be alone and yet transported.

Are there novels you recommend that retell a story? Or that tell the stories of multiple protagonists effectively?

What other recent contemporary literary fiction has caught your fancy? Or tempted you to fling the book against the wall?

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA and Community Spotlight.

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