In A Sistermony, Richard Stern counterpoints his sister’s death to a number of historical events as well as to his own personal and professional activities. These activities included Stern’s meetings with fellow writers and friends Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Stern’s troubled interactions with his own children, especially his son, Christopher, also constitute an important part of this memoir.
The book is loosely organized, sometimes almost randomly. Late in the book, Stern mentions consulting his journal for a note or fact. The book, then, is a restructuring of entries from a journal. At the end of the book, Stern reproduces his journal entries and goes back over the material he has already addressed. The structure is a dual one; readers are given a text and, later, the sources of that text.
The title, A Sistermony, uses a word that Stern was forced to invent to come to terms with his relationship with and loss of his sister. The relationship between sister and brother, especially when the sister is older, is very important in the lives of innumerable people, and Stern is to be praised for calling attention to the significant place a sister can have in one’s life. There is, moreover, another context for the term and book. Stern is using Philip Roth’s book about his father, Patrimony (1991), as a model, so he takes over the suffix and applies it to his relationship with his sister, Ruth. The term suggests not only a relationship but also an influence and inheritance from an older figure. The word Stern has coined is resonant with implications, but it is unlikely that it will ever find its way into the language.
Stern’s sister, Ruth Leviton, was not famous or distinguished but was an ordinary wife, mother, and housewife. She held a number of jobs, including one with the publishing firm Simon and Schuster. Stern stresses her ordinariness, but he shows her to be extraordinary as she underwent the experience of dying. The account of how she deals with her condition is the most important part of the book.
In order to create a full portrait of Ruth, however, Stern must go back to their early years. Ruth was four years older than Richard, and her reaction to his birth was amusing and revealing. She saw him as an invader into her established world. As they grew up, they experienced the usual rivalry of two siblings in a household. The relationship between brother and sister was not always close; it was marked, instead, by competition and distance. He saw her as “pesty,” while she saw him as arrogant and insensitive. In adulthood he considered her boring and ignorant and believed that her world was encompassed by her roles as wife and mother; in contrast, he was a well-known novelist and professor at the prestigious University of Chicago. The closest she came to any distinction was her work at a publishing firm. Thus from their early years through their middle years, their relationship was distant if not hostile. They did, however, become closer after the death of their parents.
The brother-sister relationship changed dramatically when Stern received news of his sister’s illness. He was then forced to reassess his relationship to Ruth and come to terms with her life and her place in his life.
Stern makes some interesting remarks about the relationship between poet Howard Nemerov and his sister, the photographer Diane Arbus. Stern states that their relationship was “as divided by rivalry as fused by love.” The rivalry between Richard Stern and Ruth Stern Leviton was not that intense, but divisions as well as love were clearly present.
After flying to New York to be with his sister, Stern was shocked at her physical diminishment. He spent most of his time reminiscing with her about relatives and other people in their earlier years. Brother and sister found themselves tied closely together by their shared history of people and experiences. Stern realized that in a way they possessed a language common only to them. Ruth maintained her humor in the midst of her illness; this reassured Stern, showing him that Ruth was “still Ruth.”
Yet in the midst of his sister’s dying, Stern had other concerns to address. He discusses encounters with his new publisher and his son. The conversation with the publisher was marked by Stern’s discussing his meeting with Thomas Mann, the great German writer, while he was teaching in Germany. Mann was surprisingly modest and accessible and provided Stern with a model of what a great writer should be. There are, however, no significant revelations about Mann’s writing or views. The only interesting detail is the revelation that Mann denied using very much biblical research in the writing of the tetralogy...
(The entire section is 1948 words.)