Three sisters grow up in Barnwell, Ohio, the daughters of a Shakespeare professor who talks to them in lines from the Bard’s plays. They see themselves as the “Weird Sisters” from Macbeth, since the word is derived from Wyrd, meaning fate. Though the sisters love each other, they do not like one another very much: it is always “two against one or three opposed, but never all together.” Rosalind (Rose) is the oldest and an adjunct professor of math at Columbia University; Bianca (Bean) works in the human resources department of a law firm in Manhattan; and Cordelia (Cordy) is the youngest and has been a vagabond for many years. When their mother gets cancer, their father sends letters to the youngest two and they begin to make their way home.
Rosalind is thirty-three years old and engaged to Jonathan, a chemistry professor who is spending the year doing research in Oxford. Since he is gone, she has moved back home to help her parents but knows that she is not really needed here. She is oddly relieved that her mother’s cancer gives her a reason to stay and something to accomplish. She is always the first.
Bianca lives an outrageous and outrageously expensive lifestyle—and steals from her employer to pay for it. She has accumulated clothes, accessories, and men, none of which she particularly cares about. She is finally called in by a senior partner of the firm and told that if she resigns and promises to repay what she stole, the firm will not prosecute her. Immediately she buys a junk car, throws all of her expensive belongings into it (disgusted that this is all she has to show for all the money she stole) and leaves immediately for Ohio. Though she is always second, she is the first to arrive home.
Cordelia is her father’s favorite and has never been denied anything. She left college seven years ago, stifled by the weight of impending adulthood, and has been drifting around the country living by her own wits, her willingness to whatever she must to survive, and occasional infusions of cash from her father when she is desperate. Lately she has been feeling as if she is an adult among children in this Bohemian life in which she is always dirty and hungry. Cordelia steals a pregnancy test to confirm her suspicions: she is pregnant. She hitches a ride and is the last sister home; she is last at everything.
Looking a mess after driving all night, Bianca only tells her family she quit her job; after just a few days back in the sleepy college town, she is ready to leave again. The girls’ mother is always worse a few days after her chemotherapy treatments, and that is when Bianca arrives. The library is a sanctuary for Bianca, and when she goes there she meets the new Episcopal priest, Father Aidan; he looks more like a surfer than a preacher. Bianca tries going to a bar and uses her wiles to get her drinks paid for (which she does) and to feel as if she can still catch a man (which she does not), but she comes home depressed that she is getting older. She now drinks herself to sleep each night.
Cordelia arrives home unannounced in the middle of the night; she is filthy, too thin, starving, and selfish, as always. So far in her life, everything has happened to Cordelia; she has not made anything happen. Powerless and compliant, she has always been the favorite and has always gotten away with anything; however, “permissiveness is also a sign of neglect,” and Cordelia still feels discounted.
Bianca’s bills follow her and they are overwhelming; Cordelia overhears Bianca crying on the phone and knows something secret is wrong with her sister. Desperate to feed some need deep within her, Bianca begins an affair with Edward Manning, their neighbor whose wife is away visiting their children. Her debt weighs heavily upon her, but she has not been able to find a job.
Jonathan again asks Rosalind to visit him at Oxford, but she cannot make herself leave her self-imposed obligations. It is “early to have signed her whole life away, but it seems so exhausting to change anything.”
Because the family always speaks Shakespeare and he said nothing about cancer, the family does not know how to talk about it. Their mother goes in for surgery and though the girls wait together, they do not share their fears. Instead, they do what they have always done—they read. They are dismayed to see their mother looking not like the sturdy peasant woman she has always been, but fragile and frail. The surgery reveals that the cancer has spread to her lymph nodes.
Growing up, the girls had no television or radio. They attended the Barnwell Cooperative School in an old mansion purchased and run by a consortium of professors. Students controlled their own educations, mastering subjects through pursuing their interests; it was a haphazard kind of “unschooling.” Their father’s passion is Shakespeare, and each daughter also developed a passion: Rosalind for order, Bianca for notice, and Cordelia for meaning.
Shortly after she arrives, Dan Miller, a former college classmate and owner of the Barnwell Beanery, offers Cordelia a job. She is humiliated that she is a barista in Barnwell and everyone knows it. Miller is a nice man and when he drives Cordelia home one day he sweetly kisses her; immediately, Cordelia tells him she is pregnant and he encourages her to tell her family. She is hoping not to tell them until she leaves again, the one thing she is quite good at doing.
Rosalind learns about a tenure-track position at Barnwell, something she...
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