"We wear our names heavily,” admits the narrator of Eleanor Brown’s delightful debut novel about three adult sisters raised in a Shakespeare-obsessed household. How easily can one adjust to and cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with such names as Rosalind (who dresses like a boy in As You Like It), Bianca (not even the most interesting woman in The Taming of the Shrew) and Cordelia (favorite but doomed daughter of King Lear)? Especially in an academically proficient family that chooses reading over watching TV and “has always communicated its deepest feelings through the words of a man who has been dead for almost four hundred years.”
No, adjusting to change is not easy for Rose, Bean and Cordy, who find themselves firmly lodged in the roles they’ve played all their lives: Rose the capable helper who stays at home with her parents in their small Ohio college town; Bean the bad girl with exquisite taste who lives large in New York City; Cordy the wanderer who hasn’t had a home since she left home. But change they must when their mother is diagnosed with breast cancer and a series of other events (a financial scandal, an unexpected pregnancy, a surprising job offer) throws them into a tailspin, sending Bean and Cordy home and Rose into a tizzy over how to share responsibility.
Named for MacBeth’s witches, The Weird Sisters is essentially a domestic comedy/drama that follows the sisters as they come to terms with their new living arrangement, their mother’s illness, their fears for their father, their individual torments. But Brown doesn’t make things easy on herself. She bestows distinct traces of prickliness, self-obsession and irresponsibility on her women. They’re not storybook heroines but as susceptible to bad behavior as any of us. And she uses a first-person plural narrator — a collective we that speaks for every sister yet not any specific one — with a scope wide enough to view their inner turmoils and outer mistakes with wry understanding. The trick could have failed, yet it somehow doesn’t and pulls us into the heart of the family circle.
The constant quoting of Shakespeare by one and all seems a bit much at times: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much,’’ would be fairly easy to work into a normal conversation, but “No, no, I am as ugly as a bear; for beasts that meet me run for fear” or “And what remains will hardly stop the mouth of present dues; the future comes apace; what shall defend the interim” is a stretch even from a scholar’s lips. Still, I want to hope people could talk that way. That’s Brown’s great gift: She draws you in and makes you believe her weird sisters aren’t so weird after all.