Can’t we all just get along? Anyone who has grown up alongside siblings knows that it’s not that simple. Growing up as the middle sister, I would venture to say that sisterly relationships – especially when three are involved – can be among the most intricate of sibling dynamics.
Brooklyn writer Lucinda Rosenfeld seems to agree. Brooklyn Eagle recently featured her new novel, “The Pretty One,” which tells the story of the Hellinger sisters, whose rivalries and alliances are constantly shifting. Olympia (“the pretty one”) is a single mother two coordinates events at a New York City museum, Perri (“the perfect one”) is a mother of three living in Westchester, and Gus (“the political one”) is an activist and lawyer who works for the Legal Aid Society of New York.
Although accomplished adults, the Hellinger sisters remain quick to judge each other and sometimes grapple with jealousy and resentment. Their relationships are tested when their mother winds up in the hospital, but Rosenfeld shows, with humor and charm, that these familial bonds are strong enough to withstand even the most trying circumstances.
In anticipation of the book’s Feb. 5 release, Brooklyn Eagle spoke to Rosenfeld about her own experience growing up with sisters (and raising two daughters), and learned about the Brooklyn she moved to in the ‘90s.
I understand that you’re the youngest of three girls (I happen to be a middle sister.) How do you feel about your role in your family as it compares to your sisters’? Have your roles changed as you’ve gotten older?
LR: Well, growing up, I was definitely the baby in all senses of the word—and I acted the part. I was also the “spoiled one” who had to have brand name clothes and sneakers. As we’ve all gotten older, however, I like to think that things have changed—and that my sisters and I are all on a more equal footing now. I’m sure they still see me as the one who has to have nice things and who whines if she doesn’t get her way. But I think (hope?) they also consider me slightly less incompetent and pathetic than they used to do.
Have your sisters read the book and, if so, did you go to them for any guidance as you created your characters?
LR: I never show anyone what I’m writing while I’m writing it, and that includes my family. So, no, I didn’t go to either of my sisters for guidance while writing “The Pretty One.” But I want to take this opportunity to say that, while my fictional family mirrors my own one in numbers and names (there are three of us and, as in the book, we all have somewhat grandiose names) — and the emotions I explore are emotions I’ve experienced myself — neither the book’s plot nor characters are autobiographical. In fact, it’s possible that I went so far out of my way to make my fictional sisters unlike my real-life sisters that I made them unbelievable. I hope not. As for my real-life sisters reading the book, one of them read it and really liked it. I don’t think the other one has read it yet, and I don’t know if she will.
You have daughters of your own: after writing such a heartfelt and honest book about sibling rivalry, do you view or approach your own daughters’ relationship differently?
LR: Well, I’m very concerned about my daughters being competitive, as I was with my sisters. I know that, to some extent, sibling rivalry is inevitable, especially with close-in-age siblings. (My daughters are 23 ½ months apart.) But I also think that there are steps that parents can take to diffuse the tension. I go out of my way to praise both my daughters equally; never to compare them to each other; to show both of them an equal amount of affection; and also to point out that they are different people and that everyone is good at different things. As it happens, my daughters don’t even look alike! I also make sure never to sing the praises of one to the other, which I think a lot of parents do without even realizing they’re doing so.
When and why did you decide to move to Brooklyn? Do you siblings live nearby?
LR: I moved to Brooklyn not long after I graduated from college. My first Brooklyn home was on Lincoln Place in Park Slope. This was in 1993. To give you an idea of how different the neighborhood was back then, the building that became Ozzies (on 7th and Lincoln) was abandoned and covered with graffiti. There was also a whore house on my block. And it was considered somewhat dodgy walking around the neighborhood after dark.
My sisters live in Virginia and Manhattan, so I’m the only Brooklynite. Though, in truth, I haven’t traveled very far in life. I was born in the city and grew up in New Jersey, just over the George Washington Bridge.
How would you describe your writing routine? Would you say that being a Brooklynite factors into your writing?
LR: My writing routine is that I write any time my kids are at school (and when I can drag myself away from various shopping and gossip sites) and especially on the days when our sitter picks them up. I don’t really have a routine. But I’m fairly disciplined about sitting down at my desk in the morning. My mother instilled an almost pathologically strong work ethic in all of us. I actually feel guilty when I’m not accomplishing anything. Though I can also, honestly say that I enjoy writing and consider myself incredibly lucky that I get to spend my days doing what I do.
That said, and as for Brooklyn’s influence on my writing, the main affect the borough has had on me is to make me hopelessly insecure. There are just too many brilliant and/or successful novelists living here! I like to think I’m a fairly established writer, with a fairly decent track record, but I’ve never once even been invited to the Brooklyn Book Festival. . . .
What is your favorite Brooklyn book store?
LR: BookCourt, because it’s my local one. And they have a great kids’ section, too. I just wish they kept copies of my previous novels in stock.
What’s the best book you read in 2012?
LR: Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty” really blew me away. Sentence by sentence, the writing is unbeatable. Plus, I love the way Hollinghurst weaves this really raunchy material right into the text, without ever compromising the elevated tone.
In a very different rein, I also read Marilyn Robinson’s “Housekeeping” for the first time. (Over the past two years, I’ve tried to read every novel ever written about sisters, including that one.) And while I didn’t necessarily enjoy the experience, it definitely changed the way I see the world. For days after I finished it, I actually felt haunted by images of a train bridge. . . .
Lucinda Rosenfeld has previously published three novels: “What She Saw…,” “Why She Went Home,” and “I’m So Happy for You.” She has also written fiction and essays for The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, Slate.com, and Glamour.