Family Reads: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

 Welcome to Family Reads! Family Reads is a monthly feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. Posts with a link-up go live on the last Sunday of each month, so feel free to grab the banner and join in however you like.


Reno: I’m back again with my Mom this month! The original plan was to discuss Annihilation with my sister, but we couldn’t co-ordinate a time for discussion so that’s been pushed to June. This is why I read The Sisters Brothers – because Mom had recently finished it and I could read it quickly, so that we could discuss it for the end of this month! I remember spotting the book at Costco and liking the cover. 

Mom: I read this book because second daughter (Reno’s sister) recommended it as a change from what I normally read.

Mom and I differed in our ratings for this one – I give it 2.5 stars; Mom gives it 3.5 stars. Why we gave these ratings is indirectly discussed in the second part of our discussion. You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book (spoilers ahead!). Here is some of our discussion on Westerns, odd characters, and the conclusion.

He paused to study my words. he wished to check if they were sincere, I knew, but could not think of a way to ask without sounding overly concerned. The joy went out of him then, and his eyes for a time could not meet mine. I thought, We can all of us be hurt, and no one is exclusively safe from worry and sadness. (48)

On Westerns:

Reno: So, have you ever read a Western?
Mom: No, I never thought the whole cowboys and Indians shtick would appeal to me (the closest I’ve come is romances set on sprawling country estates)
Reno: In that sense, this book isn’t really a Western.
Mom: It’s not classic Western, but Western in that it takes place in the old West, describing the time of the Gold Rush.
Reno: Should we then use the word Western to describe it? When I saw the word western in the description, my interest dropped a few notches.
Mom: The setting is just Old West, it’s not really Western. It’s an interesting time period but I wouldn’t say “That was a good Western.” “Pays homage to the classic western” (says the back of the book) is a good description.

On Odd Characters (AKA What is this story about?)

Reno: One of the discussion questions in the back of my copy is “Several odd characters have an impact on the story, including the weeping man, the witch and the poisonous little girl. What is their function in the story?”
Mom: I don’t remember the poisonous girl.
Reno: She was in the intermissions, which I didn’t really understand.
Mom: Me neither. Was the weeping man the guy who made the coffee out of dirt?
Reno: Haha, no, that’s another character. They just see the weeping man every now and then.
Mom: I don’t remember him at all.
Reno: How about the witch?
Mom: I don’t remember…oh at the house.
Reno: She did some sort of curse, protection thing.
Mom: I don’t know, she was a little bit interesting…it was odd.
Reno: Yeah, at one point I had to pause and make a note – “This is an odd story.”
Mom: Yeah, there wasn’t any connectivity to what’s going on. Maybe it’s just about the people they meet on their journey. The story is just about a journey, not about killing Warm. Like a mild version of Thelma and Louise, haha.
Reno: I don’t like it much. It felt to me also like nothing was really connected. But, that’s not usually case, in a book. Usually everything has something to do with something (or at least, the reader can make it that way). So I think I just wasn’t interested enough to figure out what was going, or what the significance of these characters was. The story wasn’t very interesting to me until they found the diary.
Mom: I think the story is just about this journey and about the characters who cross your path…the story is at the end when you put it all together. Written in hindsight, looking back, setting in the Old West, writing down a story. There’s not necessary a thread that goes through everything. It’s more like a tree, where some branches cross but they don’t really affect each other.
Reno: Do you like that kind of story?
Mom: Sometimes…yeah, I liked this one. I really liked Eli.
Reno: Right, you didn’t remember half of the little characters, haha.
Mom: No, I like more the story of Eli.
Reno: I also kind of liked Eli by the end. But for me it was all that random stuff I didn’t find interesting or relevant.

Mom: I just cut away the stuff I don’t like, I don’t really retain it. I don’t remember the random dull bits. I just remember the pieces I liked. 
Reno: Yeah, those bits seems to have no impact on the story….but I wonder if we just missed something? If we weren’t thinking hard enough. I like my stories to be a little obvious (say the Murakami fan…) 
Mom: Well, this was just a story about two brothers – one dominant, one subservient, one with high self esteem and one with low. Eli just goes along with Charlie to look after him. He doesn’t have anything else to do, Charlie likes to be the boss man.
Reno: This was more leaning towards literary fiction than I was expecting…I was expecting more of an action adventure. Still literary, but with more…I thought it was going to be more about their business, when it was really just more about them as a people. This is the end of the story, kind of for them, and I think I would have been in the beginning or the middle. There were also little bits about Eli like not exactly losing his temper but gtting into like ‘fighting mood’ just to protect Charlie. Tiny hints of how they go about their job, but you never actually see them do anything like that. There’s never any moments where they’re actually doing their job. The times when they kill people is incidental.
Mom: Yes, because it’s here at the ‘end’ of their story that they gained insight about the why behind what they’re doing. 

On the Conclusion

Mom: Boys always run home to mama, haha. I don’t know, it just seemed to kind of end. Now mom’s resigned to the fact that they’re back.
Reno: And Charlie lost his hand…I wonder if that was the only thing that could stop him from doing his job?
Mom: Yeah, because he knows there’s no out. He couldn’t make that decision voluntarily even if he wanted to. So they just go home, because now what? Maybe mom will look after them.
Reno: Also, Eli kills the Commodore. He seems to do it like how they planned, making it look accidental. Do you think they’re off scotch free now?
Mom: Yeah. I don’t think the other men who work for the Commodre are all that smart (look at Charlie and Eli, up until now, at least). They just follow orders. They don’t think for themselves. They wouldn’t have any reason to believe he didn’t just drown.
Reno: I agree, they don’t have to worry. I like to think that because I like happy resolved endings sometimes!
Mom: I don’t think it’s a happy ending. You lost your hand, you have no skills, what are you going to do…
Reno: Eli wants to open a shop. But then his mom’s right, they don’t have any money…Well, I guess it’s especially not so happy for Charlie.
Mom: Charlie’s going to end up killing himself. His sense of self-worth was so tied up in his value to the Commodore and his skill in killing, but now that’s gone.
Reno: Yeah, it’s very clear in the story – as soon as his hand was ruined he shut down. I was thinking of the ending from Eli’s point of view, more so… He’s got out of it all, though I guess the catch is they don’t have any money so he can’t start the shop…but he doesn’t have to the job anymore, which was the priority for him throughout the novel.
Mom: They have a roof over their head, at least.

The Sisters Brothers gave us lots of food for thought. What do you think this story is really about? What do you make of the cast of characters?If you’ve written a Family Reads post this month, add your link here.