Based on Freud's famous "Dora" case study, in which 16-year-old Ida Bauer was brought to Freud to be treated for hysteria, Gina Frangello's My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus Press, $14.95, 319 pages) is a dark psychological examination of family relationships and sexual desire. This first novel by Frangello, the executive editor of Other Voices magazine, is published by Portland-based literary collective Chiasmus Press.
In Continent, two years after her twin sister Kendra mysteriously vanished, 22-year-old Kirby Braun writes a case study to counter the one her father's psychiatrist has created about their family. To complete her version, Kirby revisits the 10 months leading to her sister's disappearance, relying on Kendra's journals to fill in the missing pieces.
Kirby's narrative begins with Kendra's return home to Chicago when forced to quit the New York City Ballet after hurting her back. Nervous, insecure Kirby, recently engaged, begins questioning her life as soon as her rebellious sister enters the scene.
Frangello's writing, lavish and gracefully descriptive, has a hypnotic effect—though it disappoints occasionally with stilted dialogue and jarring, vernacular outbursts. Finding generous material in Freud's case study, she pushes the plot forward with the momentum of a soap opera. Kendra's affair with Michael Kelsey, her father's longtime business partner, consumes most of the novel. Thoroughly masochistic, this affair is Kendra's attempt to exorcise the demons of her cryptic past, one of which is probably her father's abuse. The affair's violent scenes become so frequent that the latter half of the book is propelled by the morbid expectation that these lovers will kill each other.
The relationships ultimately examined in this novel are between women and men. An alarming amount of physical and psychological abuse is directed toward the twins (and they take it), but these women would have little if not for their men, who provide apartments, a car and the cash that buys a wedding gown as easily as an abortion.
Feminists now see Freud's "Dora" case as a failure in his psychoanalysis—and as a triumph for their own cause—because prior to the completion of her treatment, Bauer left Freud, reportedly disliking his questions and rejecting his interpretation of her supposedly hysterical symptoms.
Unfortunately, Frangello does not achieve such a triumphant ending. Although Kirby attempts to retell the twins' story with strength and conviction, her voice and character are too uneven to convince us that she or her sister have at last risen above bourgeois victimhood. Despite Frangello's modern reworking of the case, she gives us women who are closer to Freud's poor hysterics than she might have intended.