As far as fraught relationships go, it’s hard to top the bond between sisters. (Although mothers and daughters probably take the ultimate prize.) Two new novels center on the complex, competitive love between sisters, complicated by mental illness.
In terms of the ease with which emotional damage is inflicted, it’s not exactly a Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy world out there.
“Ever notice how sisters, when they aren’t best friends, make particularly vicious enemies?” asks Clem, the younger, favored sister in Julia Glass’s beautiful threnody I See You Everywhere.
(No, it’s not just paranoia: Her mother even admitted Clem was her favorite child – out loud, at a party, where both girls could hear.) “I wonder sometimes what kind of sisters we’ll be when we’re ancient (if we ever are).”
Clem calls her brainy, brittle, older sister Louisa “the Judge. À la the Salem witchcraft trials.”
“She did homework. I did everything else,” Clem says, summing up their roles. Of animal-loving Clem, whose beauty and energy overlay an inner pessimism, Louisa says, “She’s like Jonathan Schell and Rachel Carson rolled into one, a real downer sometimes.”
Louisa is deeply suspicious of Clem, always thinking her sister is out to steal her boyfriends (OK, there was that one time in college) and constantly feeling inferior. She has the sneaking suspicion that her mother is right: that Clem, with her vitality and recklessness, is living a more complete life.
“I want to outshine her, I want to be the wiser, the smarter, the better loved,” Louisa says plaintively. “But I want to keep an eye on her. She is, after all, irreplaceable.”
Louisa sees the shape of her bond with Clem as “a double helix, two souls coiling around a common axis, joined yet never touching.”
“I See You Everywhere,” which incorporates more of Glass’s personal history than any of her previous novels, is structured in the same way, with each sister providing her own narrative at junctures when their lives spiral closer together.
Louisa, who lives in New York and manages an art journal, looks for marriage and stability. Clem, meanwhile, heads to far-flung wildernesses – counting seals in Maine or working with grizzly bears in Montana – and leaving discarded relationships in her wake.
Her jealous adoration keeps Louisa from seeing there may be a darker reason Clem keeps trying out new locales and men. “I’ve tried, I really have, to let go of the world – but I can’t,” Clem tells readers during a stint in California. “The world weighs so much, and it bears down so hard.”
The elegant “I See You Everywhere” marks a return to the form that won Glass a National Book Award for “Three Junes.” No one would ever accuse the Troutman family of elegance.
That clan, which speaks with the self-consciously quirky cleverness particular to independent movies such as “Juno” is operating without a net in Miriam Toews’s new The Flying Troutmans.
The differing styles of these two novels can be seen in their main characters’ assessment of the state of affairs on the opening pages: “My life was not, as people like to say, in a good place,” Louisa tells readers primly and grammatically.
“Yeah, so things have fallen apart,” Hattie, the narrator of “The Flying Troutmans” bluntly states in the very first sentence of that book.
Hattie, whose boyfriend just “left her for Buddha,” has flown from Paris to Canada because her older sister, Min, is catatonic and her niece and nephew, 15-year-old Logan and 11-year-old Thebes, are flailing.
After getting Min to a hospital, Hattie tries to figure out how to help Logan and Thebes.
Realizing that she’s probably not qualified to take care of anything more substantial than a gerbil, Hattie packs a cooler with sandwiches, tosses the kids into a van, and heads for South Dakota, the last known location of their absent father. Along the way, as she struggles to get Logan to talk and Thebes to bathe, she keeps up a steady inner chatter, filling readers in on Min’s long battle with mental illness and Hattie’s childhood obsession with having Min love her.
(Hattie also slept with bubble wrap around her bed, in case Min ever went after her while she was sleeping, and is pretty sure Min tried to drown her one time on a family vacation in Cancun.)
But for decades, the only one Min has seriously tried to injure has been herself.
“The Flying Troutmans” is the kind of book where readers must studiously ignore all practical questions: Given her long stretches of catatonia, how does Min pay the mortgage? (It sure isn’t with child support – her ex-husband feels guilty about charging people for his art.)
And while Min managed to emotionally blackmail her ex into leaving the kids with her, where is Child Protective Services?
Most of the reviews of “The Flying Troutmans” have mentioned its surface similarity to “Little Miss Sunshine,” and indeed, it’s almost impossible not to hear that indie movie’s soundtrack jingling as the quirky Troutmans careen off in a rickety van on their 2,000-mile road trip.
Angry older brother who’s taken refuge in silence? Check. (Logan will speak long enough to swear.) Awkward, eager-to-please little sister? Check. Quixotic yet life-affirming quest? Check. Suicidal family member? Double check.
But while Toews taps effortlessly into the indie sensibility – to the point where the plot can seem like a directionless excuse to monologue – “The Flying Troutmans” has more going on than that facile comedy. Under all the glibness, Toews is taking a serious look at the devastation wrought by years of mental illness and the love and faith necessary to keep a family going, no matter what.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.