June 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

No Ordinary Matter

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In Season
Jenny McPhee
The Free Press

In Jenny McPhee’s fizzy second novel, No Ordinary Matter (Free Press, $23), two thirtysomething sisters — one an icy neuroscientist, the other a self-doubting writer for soap operas — meet monthly at a Hungarian bakery in Manhattan for cherry strudel and chats about sex, stretch clothes, and the origins of E=mc2. As with her first novel, 2001’s brainy, breezy The Center of Things, McPhee deftly mixes sibling dynamics with romantic comedy and science.

Why science? ”It was my editor who one day said to me, ‘You do realize there’s some father influence here,”’ says McPhee, whose dad, nonfiction great John McPhee, has written about brow-furrowing topics from plate tectonics to the history of the American shad. Although McPhee senior discouraged his children from writing, he carted them around on research expeditions through Alaska and New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. ”I was always thinking, Can I eat one more freeze-dried meal?” she recalls. To bone up on neuroscience for Matter, she enrolled in university classes and read a lot of Oliver Sacks.

The thorny sister relationship, on the other hand, required no research: Martha, one of McPhee’s four sisters, published her first novel, Bright Angel Time, before Jenny did. ”She churns out a book, I want to churn out one too,” says Jenny, who at 42 is two and a half years older (”Martha always adds the ‘half,”’ she notes). ”If it weren’t for Martha, I probably wouldn’t have published a novel,” Jenny adds. ”The competition has always been there, and you have to deal with it. You can make jealousy work for you.”

The sisters’ relationship certainly hasn’t suffered. Until Jenny moved from New York City to London last year, she and Martha talked five times a day. Now it’s down to once or twice. ”Any tiny excuse to procrastinate,” says Jenny, ”we pick up the phone.” Martha claims she’s never reciprocated the sibling rivalry, ”though I find it totally flattering.” Currently, Martha is wrapping up her third novel — which means, happily, we can soon expect Jenny’s as well.

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