The Grammarians: A Novel by Cathleen Schine

 

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There was something wayward in the twins’ relationship now, a devious shift Sally sensed but could not catch in the act.

Much like their father Arthur and his brother Don ‘were like trees that had been planted too near each other”, redheaded, identical twins Laurel and Daphne Wolfe have a bond that begins with a secret shared language until even their love of words pushes them apart and the relationship feels like a confinement. As in all sibling relationships, there is always one sister/brother that rises above the other. One who rushes head first into things, the default leader. Laurel begins to long for autonomy, to resent the ‘we’ that follows Daphne’s thoughts, decisions.  Daphne’s childhood has been one spent as the second born “Laurel was older by seventeen minutes. Daphne hated those seventeen minutes” sure “I’ll never catch up” and maybe shocked when she surpasses Laurel.

Laurel clings to the interior life she can keep for herself, thoughts she doesn’t have to share, weary of her life being lived in equal measure with her twin. Daphne, on the other hand resents when her sister keeps secrets, hates change. She despises the ways Laurel distances herself from their twin-ship. They’ll always have their shared love of words though, right? The balance shifts when Laurel marries, has a child and Daphne becomes a career woman. Suddenly, Laurel no longer feels like the ‘top dog’, her days spent with her child treated as less than the work Daphne does, though ‘she knows just as much about language’. When she returns to teaching, inspiration is born. Daphne’s successfully popular career as a columnist “preserving the dignity of and elegance of Standard English” is interrupted by Laurel’s revolt of the language rules through her poetry. It is like a smack in the face of everything Daphne has worked so hard to keep pure! Really, who is Laurel fooling, just as obsessed with the proper usage of language since birth? Just like Laurel’s mission to differentiate herself through her physical features, here she goes making yet another division in a world they once shared! Anything to always come out ahead, at Daphne’s expense!

The sisters relationship comes crashing down. Their mother, who has never been as close to her girls as they are to each other, now must witness the unraveling of their bond. Then there is the dictionary which remains “the subject of bitter controversy”, an inanimate object that is also, the subject of custody. It all returns to their daddy’s gift of the biggest book imaginable, ‘an ocean of a book’, placed upon a stand like an altar, Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. It is where the sisters “two little faces pecking at the musty pages of a dead man’s discarded book” were always found, the very thing that united and divides them. Their wordy little world is precocious which can sometimes come off as annoying or exhausting in a novel, instead I was tickled. I just kept thinking ‘oh you little bluestockings you!’ Will their mother ever see the day when they come back together? There truly are far worse vices for children than an obsession with words and yet to think they could cause so much trouble!

It’s really not about the words, it’s about all the years between them, it’s about the closeness of their twin-hood that begins to feel like an incarceration of their independent selves. Perception is everything, it makes or breaks you. Even in the unsettling feeling their uncle Don feels being around them, and their mother’s jealousy of the distance she is kept at because of their congenital bond, it follows such roles become suffocating. It’s so silly, our escape routes from family. This isn’t an explosive fall out, so much of the destruction is a slow chipping away of their sisterhood, how they see themselves and each other, how roles define us, something completely different in twins. You can’t be any closer, can you? The ending is perfect, maybe their mother Sally doesn’t share their genius for words, but she sure as hell understands her children, it’s a bittersweet ending, and I like how Sally tells a story better.

There is just something about this novel that clicked with me, it’s a quiet smoldering sisterhood, all the things we say and do as much as what we hold back. That hunger for independence, to be something other than the younger, or the older sister. Just an entity unto oneself, so much harder when twined with another.

Publication Date: September 3, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sarah Crichton Books

 

 

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