My Sister's Continent
By: Gina Frangello.
Chiasmus Press, $12.
Review By: Gretchen Kalwinski
After her twin sister's mysterious disappearance, narrator Kirby Braun responds to a therapist's mistaken diagnoses of her family—laden with sexual secrets and feminine angst—by carefully piecing together details from Kendra's life. While sifting through memories, Kirby muses, "How do I tell the story of a life...that is outside my own experience, wrapped in shatterproof glass and secrets that have everything to do with me?"
While Kirby is complacent and domestic, Kendra was passionate and bohemian. Devastated after an injury ended her promising career at the New York City Ballet, Kendra returned to family in Chicago only to become increasingly withdrawn before disappearing entirely. Though Kirby was considered the "good" twin, she is inwardly troubled: no career, a banal sex life and health problems that become a serious threat to her wedding plans. It is difficult to deal with female sexuality without exploring issues of body, consumption and purging (of food, thoughts, memories), and the novel's strength is how intricately these themes are linked. Between Kirby's digestive troubles and Kendra's depression, both girls lose weight rapidly, mirroring one another's bodies even while their personalities conflict.
Kendra's sadomasochistic relationship with an older man functions as a "therapy of humiliation," and it is in these scenes that Frangello's lush and poetic style is at its most lyric. The cat-and-mouse style of their coital dialogue is an annoying but necessary device in conveying their sex games, and during one particularly sophisticated conversation, Kendra muses, "I prefer my sex less civilized and urbane than this cigarette-lighting Noël Coward routine you call being direct."
Frangello's debut novel is akin to a woman's archeological dig into another life, as well as a modern retelling of Freud's famed "Dora" story. As such, it cannot help but be rather bleak, evoking a similar anomie as The Ice Storm and The Virgin Suicides. It is also an intriguing and darkly psychological look at and investigation of identity, the façades that cloak us and the complicated habitat of private, inner lives. —GK