July 2006

Angela Stubbs


My Sister's Continent by Gina Frangello

Gina Frangello’s debut novel, My Sister’s Continent, published by Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chiasmus Press, is more than just a modern day re-telling of a famous Freudian case study. This book is a disturbing, awe-inducing, character-addicted read that leads its readers through the desperate lows and drug-induced highs of the lives of two twins, Kirby and Kendra, who attempt to deal with the psychological ramifications of their childhood by reexamining the past as well as the present.

Narrated by Kirby, My Sister’s Continent is a modern day detective story that parallels Freud’s “Dora” case study. We are led down the broken path of truth and memory as she explores her fears, struggles with twinship and dysfunctional family members in numerous frustrating therapy sessions. Frangello takes the mystery of family, sibling rivalry and sexual identity and exposes them for the complex issues that they are. With each turn of the page, the writing gets better and the tensions, fantasies and mysteries all grow larger. The prose demands the reader’s attention and without notice, sucks you into the lives of each of these characters, taking us hostage.

Kirby begins her story as Kendra returns to Chicago on a one-way ticket from New York. Kirby has mixed emotions about her sister’s return not to mention her upcoming wedding. All of this leads to a severe case of irrital bowel syndrome. After having left the NY Ballet due to medical complications Kendra is determined to keep her return a secret from her parents. Once Kirby and Kendra reunite, it’s Aris, Kirby’s fiancé who takes issue with Kendra, passing judgment on the type of men she dates, her mannerisms, her style and her smoking. Quickly, it becomes clear that Kendra has no lost love for Aris and makes her feelings on his character known loud and clear.

During the following chapters the twins come to realize their father is suffering from AIDS. They both enter into relationships they know aren’t right for them, thus causing them to endure therapy sessions that often entail recounting their childhood memories. This work is fraught with psychology and personality issues but leaves the psychobabble at the door. It focuses on the details and intricacies in each of the characters lives.

This novel dispels any stereotypes about twinship. Kirby and Kendra, assertions to the contrary, are more alike than either of them will acknowledge. Kendra has a rebellious streak to her and Kirby acts out as well, but in her own way. Frangello has made a conscientious effort to ensure that Kirby and Kendra, while different in their approach to life and its tribulations, remain neither identical nor polar opposites.
Many readers will not be familiar with Freud’s “Dora,” but Frangello takes this study from Hysterics and turns it upside down, making the modern-day story even better with the twists and turns she’s created in the Chicago setting. It becomes painfully clear for both twins that suffering takes on many forms. For Kendra, anguishes takes over her mind and keeps the  possibility of being infected with AIDS ever-present in her mind. She also begins dabbling in drugs again, forbidding herself from any and all food intake, all while seeking out sadomasochistic behavior in men, specifically her father’s best friend. Kirby questions her sexuality and later comes out of the closet, but is ultimately left to ponder her sister’s fate, her whereabouts and even her possible death by the story’s end. 

One of Frangello’s greatest skills is building tension. There is some nail-biting, hair-pulling, crotch-burning tension. To the author’s credit, there are moments in this book imagination is key. We are often left to create our own mental images of events that take place between the twins and their father, between Kirby and other women and with the women their father had slept with over the years. Regardless of the crime, the heart does not differentiate between accidental and intentional pain. The mind and the body both display wounds that offer a different version of the truth.

It’s because of Frangello’s own studies in psychology that this story remains authentic. My Sister’s Continent has been crafted and sculpted into a spectacular puzzle of victims and criminals. This story does not shy away from the difficult topics and yet Frangello never hesitates to explore the possibility of missing resolutions, of uncertainty.

Upon closing the book to My Sister’s Continent, Frangello leaves the reader conflicted. Ambiguity breeds many strange feelings, among them a need to reread the book again, to catch nuances with the turn of each page. Gina Frangello writes with passion and compassion and her debut is a wondrous one. While this work parallels a prior psychological case study, Frangello’s work here remains her own. This book does to you what all good books do; it keeps you thinking about it long after having read the final page.

My Sister’s Continent by Gina Frangello
Chiasmus Press
ISBN: 0970321295
319 Pages