Eleanor Brown speaks with Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen about her new novel, The Weird Sisters, which imagines the lives of three sisters and their obsessive Shakespearean scholar father who prefers iambic pentameter to normal, everyday conversation.
Shakespeare (1564-1616) reads Hamlet to his family, circa 1600. The Weird Sisters is a new novel about a family that reads Shakespeare to each other.
While the ability to recall obscure couplets of iambic pentameter might be considered an enviable asset for writing articles in literary journals, it's not the most effective child-rearing tool. In The Weird Sisters, a new novel by Eleanor Brown, three daughters of an overzealous Shakspearean academic live with a father who continuously recites poetry as a form of parental advice.
Rose, Bean and Cordy were named after the Bard's well-known Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia, respectively. On Weekend Edition Sunday, Brown shares an example of the quirky quoting trait with host Liane Hansen through one of the lines from the novel:
"Marry, sir, 'tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers. Therefore, he that cannot lick his fingers goes not with me," [our father] said finally. "Um, what?" Bean asked. "I think what your father means is that since breast cancer may be hereditary, it's important that you do self-exams," our mother said, patting his hand as he nodded uncomfortably. Oh, right. We're sure that's exactly what Shakespeare was trying to say.
Finding the fitting words to put in her characters' mouths ? in a way that Shakespeare probably did not intend ? involved a fair amount of research, Brown says. Sometimes she collected a whole list of quotes and tried to write a scene from a favorite one, but other times she ended up in a mad scramble through pages of plays to find that one quote that fit the situation exactly.
More than just a recitation of poetry, the Shakespeare overkill in Brown's fictional family hints at deeper issues that the father and sisters must deal with when they learn that their mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
"He's fairly emotionally distant," Brown says of the father. "And especially when things get emotionally tough, he retreats into Shakespeare, and he relies on Shakespeare to speak for him. Everybody else has picked that trait up too, and it becomes this sort of linguistic currency."
Instead of trying to one-up Shakespeare and create a modern adaptation of a classic play ? like 10 Things I Hate About You's interpretation of The Taming Of The Shrew ? Brown says she wanted to give her characters their own distinct problems and personalities in The Weird Sisters. Still, she tips her hat to Shakespeare at every turn ? the novel's title comes from Macbeth and refers more to fate and destiny than strangeness.
The true takeaway of Brown's novel is the role of a family and each sibling's place in it ? a glimpse at the distinct responsibilities that come along with being an older, middle or younger child. Living up to the expectations of a literary figure has its own issues, as well.
"The fact that they were named after these famous Shakespearean heroines contributes to their feelings of failure, " says Brown. "They are never going to be as glamorous and romantic and well-spoken as the women after whom they are named, but their problems are very much their own."
Excerpt: 'The Weird Sisters'
by Eleanor Brown
We came home because we were failures. We wouldn't admit that, of course, not at first, not to ourselves, and certainly not to anyone else. We said we came home because our mother was ill, because we needed a break, a momentary pause before setting off for the Next Big Thing. But the truth was, we had failed, and rather than let anyone else know, we crafted careful excuses and alibis, and wrapped them around ourselves like a cloak to keep out the cold truth. The first stage: denial.
For Cordelia, the youngest, it began with the letters. They arrived the same day, though their contents were so different that she had to look back at the postmarks to see which one had been sent first. They seemed so simple, paper in her hands, vulnerable to rain, or fire, or incautious care, but she would not destroy them. These were the kind you save, folded into a memory box, to be opened years later with fingers against crackling age, heart pounding with the sick desire to be possessed by memory.
We should tell you what they said, and we will, because their contents affect everything that happened afterward, but we first have to ex- plain how our family communicates, and to do that, we have to explain our family.
Perhaps we had just better explain our father.
If you took a college course on Shakespeare, our father's name might be resident in some dim corner of your mind, under layers of unused telephone numbers, forgotten dreams, and the words that never seem to make it to the tip of your tongue when you need them. Our father is Dr. James Andreas, professor of English literature at Barnwell College, singular focus: The Immortal Bard.
The words that might come to mind to describe our father's work are insufficient to convey to you what it is like to live with someone with such a singular preoccupation. Enthusiast, expert, obsessed?these words all thud hollow when faced with the sandstorm of Shakespeare in which we were raised. Sonnets were our nursery rhymes. The three of us were given advice and instruction in couplets; we were more likely to refer to a hated playmate as a "fat-kidneyed rascal" than a jerk; we played under the tables at Christmas parties where phrases like "deconstructionist philosophy" and "patriarchal malfeasance" drifted down through the heavy tablecloths with the carols.
And this only begins to describe it.
But it is enough for our purposes.
The first letter was from Rose: precise pen on thick vellum. From Romeo and Juliet; Cordy knew it at once. We met, we woo'd and made exchange of vow, I'll tell thee as we pass; but this I pray, That thou consent to marry us to-day.
And now you will understand this was our oldest sister's way of telling us that she was getting married.
The second was from our father. He communicates almost exclusively through pages copied from The Riverside Shakespeare. The pages are so heavily annotated with decades of thoughts, of interpretations, that we can barely make out the lines of text he highlights. But it matters not; we have been nursed and nurtured on the plays, and the slightest reminder brings the language back.
Come, let us go; and pray to all the gods/For our beloved mother in her pains. And this is how Cordy knew our mother had cancer. This is how she knew we had to come home.
Reprinted from The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown by arrangement with Amy Einhorn Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright 2011 by Eleanor Brown.