About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

123 - The Story Sisters

Thanksgiving Break edition, part 1. 123 was The Story Sisters, another one by Alice Hoffman (Shaye Areheart, 2009).

Dust jacket blurb: "Alice Hoffman's previous novel, The Third Angel, was hailed as 'an unforgettable portrait of the depth of true love' (USA Today), 'stunning' (Jodi Picoult), and 'spellbinding' (Miami Herald). Her new novel, The Story Sisters, charts the lives of three sisters -- Elv, Claire, and Meg. Each has a fate she must meet alone: one on a country road, one in the streets of Paris, and one in the corridors of her own imagination. Inhabiting their world are a charismatic man who cannot tell the truth, a neighbor who is not who he appears to be, a clumsy boy in Paris who falls in love and stays there, a detective who finds his heart's desire, and a demon who will not let go.

"What does a mother do when one of her children goes astray? How does she save one daughter without sacrificing the others? How deep can love go, and how far can it take you? These are the questions this luminous novel asks."

After reading Property Of, my hopes for savoring the rest of Hoffman's ouvre were high. Now, I'm not so sure. I liked Story Sisters well enough, and found elements of the story excellent -- but overall, I don't think it lived up to its potential. Perhaps Wendy Smith, in this Washington Post review, captures it best:
"It's a rare year that doesn't bring a novel from Alice Hoffman, and those who follow this maddeningly uneven writer have learned to cast a wary eye on each new offering. Will it be Good Alice, poser of uncomfortable moral dilemmas and marvelously rich portraitist of family life ... ? Or will it be Bad Alice, blatantly careless plotter and outrageous overdoer of the magic-beneath-the-surface-of-our-lives shtick ... ? The Story Sisters, actually, is In-Between Alice: excessive and over-determined but ultimately so moving that it overwhelms these faults."
On this last point, I mostly concur. There's a lot to be said for this book, even if I have become suspicious of any novel deemed "luminous" by its jacket, but Hoffman comes near to spoiling it by gilding the lily. The title sisters are simply too darned beautiful, and their imagined language (Arnish, which New York Times reviewer Chelsea Cain describes as "[looking] a little like the Italian a Tolkien elf might speak after a year in Rome") too precious. I'm no stranger to excess verbiage, but the purple description in the first chapter made me feel like I'd wandered into a Danielle Steele novel by mistake:
"The Story sisters were sharing a room on the evening of their grandparents' fiftieth anniversary party. Their mother trusted them completely. They were not the sort of teenagers who would steel from the minibar only to wind up drunk in the hallway, sprawled out on the carpet or nodding off in a doorway, embarrassing themselves and their families. They would never hang out the window to wave away cigarette smoke or toss water balloons onto unsuspecting pedestrians below. They were diligent, beautiful girls, well behaved, thoughtful. Most people were charmed to discover that the girls had a private, shared language. It was lovely to hear, musical. When they spoke to each other, they sounded like birds.

"The eldest girl was Elisabeth, called Elv, now fifteen. Meg was only a year younger, and Claire had just turned twelve. Each had long, dark hair and pale eyes, a startling combination. Elv was a disciplined dancer, the most beautiful in many people's opinions, the one who had invented the Story sisters' secret world. Meg was a great reader and was never without a book; while walking to school she often had one open in her hands, so engrossed she would sometimes trip while navigating familiar streets. Claire was diligent, kindhearted, never one to shirk chores. Her bed was made before her sisters opened their sleepy eyes. She raked the lawn and watered the garden and always went to sleep on time. All were self-reliant and practical, honor students any parent would be proud to claim as their own."
The storybook anniversary party goes wrong when the Story sisters attempt to rescue a (so they think) "mistreated" Central Park carriage horse, only to have Claire break both arms and the horse end up dead. This incident sets the stage for the rest of the novel: a place where innocence is lost, and fairytales go wrong in grotesque, unimagined ways. Early on, we learn that "the worst had happened" already, at least for Elv: the summer of her parents' divorce, when she was eleven, she jumped into a neighbor's car to stop him from abducting Claire, and was snatched and molested in her stead.

The girls never tell Meg or their mother, Annie, and it's this summer that Elv invents Arnish and an fairyland, Arnelle, to go with it. Frankly, this is the part of the story that loses me a bit -- perhaps because we get only snippets of it in retrospect, after the horse-rescuing, arm-breaking party when the trio begins to crumble and Arnelle starts to lose some of its luster. At the same time, Elv loses control, staying out all night, using marijuana and methamphetamine, running around with all sorts of disreputable boys. This could be poignant and gripping, but isn't, really; Hoffman offers no clue as to why, after four years of holding her secret, Elv falls apart so suddenly and so completely. Moreover, we see only her defiance and lashing out at her mother and sisters; I know I'm supposed to assume this behavior is somehow related to her earlier trauma, but with nary a glimpse of what she's thinking and feeling all the while, she just comes off like a spoiled brat.

Eventually, the situation becomes so untenable and Elv so uncontrollable that Annie (reluctantly abetted by her ex-husband Alan) plans an intervention, packing the girls off for a drive to New Hampshire that, unbeknownst to Elv, ends at a therapeutic boarding school. Here, her life is transformed, but it's not the treatment that does it; Elv is quick to get around, rather than with, the Westfield program:
"By the end of the first month Elv had come to understand the school's philosophy. They swiftly broke you down until you were nothing. They destroyed you, then built you back up again. Only they did it their way, the Westfield way. What they wanted were clones, people without minds of their own who had the Westfield agenda imprinted on their souls. ...

"If you wanted to survive in this place, you had to let them think you had given in. The harder you fought, the harder they broke you. You had to hide yourself away. ...

"She wanted to jump up and cheer. Inshead, she said 'Thank you' in a solemn, soft voice. 'I'm grateful for your trust and support.' She had the language of self-help down pat. In group therapy, she told sorrowful stories that shocked everyone. It felt as if she was lying even if it was the truth, how she'd been fed bread and water, how he'd tied her down. When she cried, her tears were made of glass. They broke her in half when they fell to the floor. No one noticed; they thought they were real. As if she would ever cry over what had happened.

"The staff began to like her, she could tell. They pitied her. They though she'd been treated unfairly at home, that she'd come from a dysfunctional family of divorce and shared secrets and was trying to reclaim her life."
No, the change comes when Elv meets Lorry, the brother of one of her classmates, who readers of Property Of will recognize as a classic McKay-style bad boy:
"Lorry liked people to hand over what was precious to them, convinced that they had made their own decision to do so. He was tall and thin, handsome, dark, with hooded eyes and an uncanny ability to read people. Women said he had a lethal smile and that he was difficult to resist. Everyone agreed -- he could talk himself out of just about any kind of trouble. ... Unlike his little brother, he didn't have to brag. He simply knew what he wanted."
Elv finally feels "turned inside out by love", and falls "feetfirst, as though dropped from a bridge." Soon, Lorry reluctantly introduces her to his "fatal flaw": heroin. Before long, Annie's second thoughts get the best of her, and she arrives to sign Elv out of Westfield, but discovers almost immediately that the daughter she brings home has changed, but not as she'd expected. Elv's pre-Westfield hijinks resume with a vengeance, and not surprisingly, a tragedy ensues, tearing the family apart.

The aforementioned Times review calls the latter part of the novel "histrionic," but I disagree. While it's not without its cliches (Annie's illness, and her budding romance with the detective she hires to find the runaway Elv), I found Part 2 far more compelling and believable than Part 1. Elv lives in Queens with Lorry, a stone's throw from her childhood home on Long Island, which, er, happens to be where he works:
"People had to live, didn't they? If a lion took a lamb for its supper, did anyone complain or say it was unnatural? She went with him sometimes when he drove out to Long Island, to wealthy neighborhoods where the people were so rich, they wouldn't miss a few things. And if they did, all they had to do was phone their insurance companies and everything would be replaced within the week. Elv sat behind the wheel of the car, the engine running, the headlights low, chewing on her lip while Lorry robbed houses. She thought of herself as an accomplice, and she savored the word."
Too much more detail at this point would spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the surviving Storys are left to discover, each in her own way, the perils, power, and limitations of love. As the girls' grandmother, Natalia, muses while sewing a wedding dress, "that was the way love was, invisible, there whether or not you wanted to see it or admit to it." Likewise, in the final chapter, one of the sisters observes:
"The nature of love had totally escaped her until now. She had thought that if you lost it, you could never get it back, like a stone thrown down a well. But it was like the water at the bottom of the well, there when you can't even see it, shifting in the dark. She remembered everything."
Her sister, telling her own daughter stories of a fairyland whose demons have now been exorcised, concurs:
"Maybe some love was guaranteed. Maybe it fit inside you and around you like skin and bones. This is what she remembered and always would: the sisters who sat with her in the garden, the grandmother who stitched her a dress the color of the sky, the man who spied her in the grass and loved her beyond all measure, the mother who set up a tent in the garden to tell her a story when she was a child, neither good nor bad, selfish nor strong, only a girl who wanted to hear a familiar voice as the dark fell down, and the moths rose, and the night was sure to come."

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