A Sistermony

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The relationship between a brother and a sister is a very significant one for nearly everyone, yet it has rarely been analyzed in any detail. The relationship between Richard Stern and his sister, Ruth Leviton, had not been close for many years. He was a famous writer and professor while she was a housewife. When Stern learns of her illness, however, he is forced to reassess that relationship. Brother and sister meet and reminisce about their childhood and parents. Stern describes Ruth as an ordinary woman who becomes extraordinary during her fatal illness.

Stern’s memoir is also notable for its description of a writer’s life and his meetings with other writers. He visits Philip Roth twice during this period, and he and Roth are clearly very close. They discuss galleys and their books, and it is clear that Stern’s title is indebted to Roth’s PATRIMONY (1991). Stern also meets with Saul Bellow, who has some sharp and amusing remarks on other writers, and Stern discusses his negative attitude towards Ezra Pound, a writer that Stern had met early in his career and used as the title character of his novel, STITCH (1965).

The heart of the book, however, is the relationship of brother and sister. Ruth dies of cancer and Stern grieves not only for her painful death but also for the love for his sister that he had not fully expressed. His professional life is successful and fulfilling and he has a loving wife and children who admire and respect him. Nevertheless, he has lost that important relationship with his sister. This absence remains in his thoughts and memory and it darkens his accomplishments.

Sources for Further Study

The Antioch Review. LIII, Fall, 1995, p. 454.

Booklist. XCI, February 15, 1995, p. 1054.

Chicago Tribune. March 19, 1995, XIV, p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIII, January 1, 1995, p. 68.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 2, 1995, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, January 2, 1995, p. 64.