Alice Hoffman’s prose is nearly gorgeous enough to console us for the tragedies of her newest novel, The Story Sisters. It is a book about demons and family bonds; it is very much a work about sisterhood. Jealousy figures in, as do loyalty, protection, friendship, and shifting alliances. The novel begins with the three sisters as young girls, troubling and fascinating daughters to their loving divorcée mother, Annie. We meet them at the Plaza Hotel, dressed in blues that both set them apart and link them: “Teal and azure and sapphire. They liked to wear similar clothes and confuse people as to who was who.” Elv, the eldest, is “the most beautiful”; Meg is “a great reader” and Claire, the youngest, is “diligent, kindhearted, never one to shirk chores.” When they speak a private language to each other — “lovely to hear, musical” — most people are “charmed.” But the charm cannot protect the girls themselves — if anything their virtues seem to call down disaster.
The novel follows this family — whose punning surname really is “Story” — through the tumultuous course of their lives, and takes place in nearly magical realms: seaside Long Island, New York City, Paris. If there is grief enough to spare, blow after blow of unbearable loss, moments of grace also abound, and Hoffman keeps pulling characters out of her sleeve till the final pages of book — a sure sign of a master of fiction. (Doestoevsky always has one 11th-hour heroine or villain in his toolbox; so, too, does Dickens.) Even the most minor characters leave an indelible impression, like these two ominous counselors at a private school for wayward youth: “They seemed like prizefighters or bouncers in a nightclub. They wore black rain jackets and work boots. They were standing in the rain, waiting. If Annie could have felt anything, she might have been flooded with second thoughts. She might have made Alan turn the car around. But she was paralyzed.”
Hoffman brilliantly delineates the face of bereavement in the aftermath of a family disaster: mother and sister “stayed home all winter. They didn’t shovel the snow on the walkway?.They wandered into the kitchen and grabbed a bite of cheese or a cracker. They didn’t trouble to use dishes anymore, only ate standing up, crouched over the sink or using paper napkins. They reminded Natalia of the dogs one sometimes saw in certain neighborhoods of Paris, wild and uncared for, dangerous to the touch.” Hoffman’s spare, terse method of constructing sentences adds to the haunting quality of the book and underscores its poetry. (“She wasn’t the least bit spooked when the leaves on the trees rattled, always a sign of rain. The rain in Paris was beautiful, anyway, cold and clean and green.”)
Elv, the ravaged, angry heroine of the book, is especially memorable, both in her disintegration and in her efforts to redeem herself. Her name suggests her connection to a magical, alternative world, and her personality seems even to her mother a thorny mystery: “Her oldest girl sat up in the hawthorn tree late at night; she said she was looking at stars, but she was there even on cloudy nights, her black hair even blacker against the sky. Annie was certain that people who said daughters were easy had never had girls of their own.” Elv’s difficulties evolve from childhood eccentricity to self-mutilation to drug addiction. Even as a young girl she is wary, for good reason. Her exceptional beauty proves both a blessing and a curse.
Elv put her sweater on, even though the room was quite warm. The waiter had been skulking around, trying to get close to her, breathing on her hair, looking at her as if he knew something.
“Did you want something?” Mary Fox asked him.
“Don’t talk to him,” Elv said.
The sisters escape from the brutality of the real world around them to a made-up world they call Arnelle, with its own language, characters, and customs.
Arnelle was everything the human world was not. Speech was unnecessary. Treachery was out of the question. It was a world where no one could take you by surprise or tell you a mouthful of lies. You could see someone’s heart through his chest and know if he was a goblin, a mortal, or a true hero. You could divine a word’s essence by a halo of color — red was false, white was true, yellow was the foulest of lies. There were no ropes to tie you, no stale bread, no one to shut and lock the door.
True heroes are rare in The Story Sisters, out-and-out villains even rarer, but not a single character fails to come to life under Hoffman’s capable hand. As with any good story, one encounters birth and death, surprise twists of fate. Lovable characters sometimes come to terrible ends, and terrible characters turn themselves toward good. The justice one encounters in this world is more like the justice of the Grimm Brothers than the justice of a contemporary court of law. Speech and speechlessness, love and lovelessness do battle, as do primal forces of good and of evil. The book does flounder at times in the second half, pulled down by the weight of its own cumulative disasters. One or two plot twists ring false. But ultimately, Hoffman earns all of her dark moments.
Like sisters in a fairy tale, these three have their impossible tasks to accomplish: “one to find love, one to find peace, one to find herself.” If one can bear the darkness of the journey, Alice Hoffman offers a remarkable new telling of an old, enduring story.