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."