"When you apologize profusely for something dumb, you’re not serving other people. You’re soothing your own insecurity. … Sometimes the root cause of this behavior is just sensitivity. It’s not that you’re all that self-involved, it’s just that you can see when people’s faces change ever so slightly, and it makes you wonder if you did something wrong."
— Heather Havrilesky, Ask Polly
I’ve been apologizing too much since before I was a teenager. My friends tease me about it. And I do think it’s the result of something close to what Havrilesky’s describing: a combination of self-involvement and being attuned to what people around me are expressing. At my worst, I zero in on any frown, any lack of enthusiasm, any hint of distraction or boredom or distaste, and assume it’s a direct reaction to me.
When I first read the novel Prep, and then when I reread it the next year and again the year after that, I felt like I was perusing my own diary. Curtis Sittenfeld is a downright genius at capturing the details–the tiniest details–and politics and knottiness of interpersonal behavior. I cherished one quote for how true it felt: “I always worried someone would notice me, and when no one did, I felt lonely.”
I just finished Sittenfeld’s latest book, Sisterland, and reveled all over again in her mastery of the interactions between people who are close but not quite honest with each other, and the thoughts of someone who’s always weighing and worrying what other people think. Sisterland’s Kate has a history and a background and a set of anxieties totally different from Lee’s in Prep, but they share that hyper-observant, hyper-vigilant nature. Always watching, always noticing, always wondering whether they’re doing the right thing in response.
The characters might exasperate those closest to them by being anxious and hesitant and overly concerned with others’ opinions, as surely I’ve exasperated friends over the years. But their heads are fascinating to be inside, because Sittenfeld doesn’t force meaning on her characters’ interactions–she describes real nuances and oddities of behavior with utter precision. That does happen, you think while reading. That is how it feels.
Sisterland is remarkable in how much of it is filled with the straightforward details of Kate’s life as a housewife and mother. Whole pages are consumed with the logistics of getting her young children from place to place, feeding and cleaning them, leaving them with this or that guardian. Sittenfeld’s previous novels had that, too, but they were about prep school and the First Lady; this one dives without hesitation into the messiness and routine of motherhood. The book largely focuses on the relationship between Kate and her twin sister, and though they have different personalities even as kids, the fact that Kate has a family while Vi remains single is a major point of contrast between them.
I’m about to feel that contrast in my own life: My sister, who’s two years younger, is having a baby in September. We’ve always been very close, and we’ve often squabbled and annoyed each other. As she enters a world of feeding and changing and odd sleeping schedules and hauling around strollers and car seats, I know I’m doomed to feel distant from a life I know nothing about. But the women in Sisterland–arguing, sighing, rolling their eyes but always loving–reassure me, even though it’s very anti-Sittenfeld to gloss over the complications that are sure to come for my relationship with my sister. When I was still a few chapters into the book, I texted her, “Curtis Sittenfeld has a new book out–I’m really liking it so far,” and she replied, “Ha! I just finished it and was going to tell you to read it.”