The Grammarians

Could it be Ann Landers and Abigail van Buren on the cover of Catherine Schine’s new novel about twins with extraordinary linguistic skills? The picture of the two wide-eyed twin girls on the cover could be any set of famous twins, but Daphne and Laurel Wolfe are the stars of  The Grammarians and they share some of the idiosyncracies of the real Pauline Esther and Esther Pauline Lederer (better known as  Ann and Abby) in an entertaining story about sibling rivalry and the power of words. 

The notion of being a twin is not an experience most of us have, but many have smatterings of twin envy. Have you ever wished to trade places with a doppelganger, especially on those days when you would rather be someone else than face the routine of life? Shakespeare did it and so do the Wolfe twins. And wouldn’t it be convenient to have a secret language like twin speak? Even Sally, Daphne and Laurel’s mother, cannot understand their private language. 

Although I suffered through years of diagramming grammar with the good sisters who believed a dangling participle a mortal sin, and later studied linguist Noam Chomsky, I was sometimes intimidated by the twins. Each chapter begins with a word and its obscure dictionary definition; conversations sometimes include outlandish words. Readers could create their own list, just like the twins with words like fugacious, gloze, irenicon, to check them out later in the dictionary – but why bother.

The dictionary – Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition – enters the story early, offering a convenient source of reference as the girls grow, becoming a point of contention when their father dies, and finally bringing the twins back together in the end. This heavy tome placed on its stand, referred to as the “altar,” has all anyone needs to understand the story – “words, words, words, words” and the twins sometimes take it to bed with them.

As adults, the twins branch into different interpretations of language. Daphne becomes a grammar columnist, devoted to preserving the mother language, while Laurel leaves her teaching job to write poetry with hiphop tendencies. Both become well known in language circles, and they argue publicly about who has the correct slant toward words –  suffering a time when they are not talking to each other – not unlike those famous sisters, Dear Abby and Dear Ann Landers.

Schine’s story is not just for the “bookish.”  Her observations of family relationships, especially sisterly competition, offer a humorous and sometimes poignant tale.  Luckily, it all turns out well in the end; real sisters are not always so forgiving.  


Review of Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport:


Caring for Aging Parents: Hot Milk with They May Not Mean to, But They Do

Although both books I had been reading together had some humor, both Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Cathleen Schine’s They May Not Mean To, But They Do were giving me a headache.  With the focus on illness and dying, they made a good pair. In both cases, the books delivered unexpected lessons in grace, patience, and fortitude.  I had forgotten both authors have more to say than their plots.

9781620406694_p0_v5_s192x300  Levy’s Hot Milk, short listed for the Man Booker Prize this year, focuses on the relationship of an English Rose, a hypochondriac mother and her daughter, Sophia,  who uses her dutiful caring of her mother to avoid her own life. Sophie has an ABD (all but dissertation) in anthropology; she is constantly observing and internalizing. Frequently, I wanted to tell her to stop studying life around her and start living her own. 

Sophia’s father, a Greek who has remarried a younger woman, appears later in the drama, contributing to Sophia’s angst, but the mother-daughter enabling relationship holds the focus.  .  . Levy lightens the mood with her wacky characters – my favorite, the “quack” doctor who seems made to order for a quack patient.  And when Sophie leaves her mother in the middle of the road in a chapter titled “Matricide,” I laughed out loud at her frustration.

9780374280130_p0_v4_s192x300  In Schine’s They May Not Mean To, But They Do, the Weismanns of Westport reappear as the Bergmans of Manhattan, with an elderly dying father being cared for by his younger eighty-six year old wife.  The scenes describing her caregiving may seem funny to some, but will strike a sad chord of familiarity for anyone who has been there.  

The children surround and hover,  intermittently ignoring and suffering their aging parents – making decisions from afar, not really wanting to acknowledge the reality.  Although Schine uses the title from Philip Larkin’s famous poem, in her view it’s the children messing up the parents. After their father dies, they try to help their mother by buying her a dog and then a tricycle.  When Joy finds companionship with an old friend, Karl, the story reminded me of Kent Haruf’s “Our Souls at Night.”  Do all adult children have those same fears and reservations for their aging parents?Like Roz Chast in her graphic novel addressing adult children and aging parents, Schine does not shy away from difficult discussions but manages to cultivate the laughs.

Despite the sprinkling of humor, both books reflect on the misery and reality of aging, illness (real or imagined), and the ultimate prospect of death.  Rightfully, the authors draw attention to matters needing to be discussed, observed, and perhaps offer some solutions, but to quote Roz Chast – can’t we talk about something more pleasant?

Against my instincts, I kept reading both. Because Hot Milk was a book for discussion by one of my groups, I soldiered on, sometimes wondering if the book was a translation (it was not).  Because a good friend promised I would appreciate the ending of Schine’s book, I finished it.

The ending of Hot Milk was a surprise.  Schine’s ending was also unexpected, but much easier and hopeful.  We all die. Levy would have us philosophize our way to the end with an ironic laugh; Schine offers resignation with humor.




fin and lady


In the same conversational style as The Three Weissmanns of Westport, Catherine Schine creates a story about an orphaned boy and his irrepressible fun-loving guardian in New York City – a modern “Mame” – in her short novel, Fin and Lady.

After his mother dies, eleven year-old Fin leaves the comfort of a farm in Connecticut to live with his wealthy half-sister, Lady, in Greenwich Village.  Twenty-three year old Lady, the family black sheep, provides Fin with a reading list, enrolls him in an unconventional bohemian school – the progressive New Flower, and enlists his help in deciding which of three suitors she should marry before she is twenty-five.

Although the plot sounds frivolous, Schine manages to channel the changing times from the sixties through the Vietnam War era, and reveal the insecurities of the main characters as they support each other in navigating their lives.  Supporting characters add humor to the unlikely escapades, some fitting nicely into the stereotypes that Schine uses to skillfully create expectations that never materialize: the Hungarian refugee and art dealer Biffi; the ascot-wearing lawyer Tyler; the Yale-educated Jack; Biffi’s Hungarian mother who hides her jewels in a paper bag of stale cookies; Mabel, Lady’s maid with an attitude.

In addition to the highlights of New York City as Lady tours Fin through the museums, art galleries, shops, and restaurants, Schine offers flowing descriptions of Capri, when Lady escapes to find true love:

“The town was full of steps and alleys. Enormous lemons hung from vines. The beach was tiny, the harbor full of brightly painted boats. There were dolphins one day. The sun was high and hot… Everything seemed enchanted.”

The narrator of this love story is unclear until she is revealed later in the story, and, at times, I found myself backtracking – thinking the author had missed a typo in the narrative – when the mysterious voice intermittently inserts an opinion.  Otherwise, this short read is humorous and disconcerting – a happy ending but a sad life.

Related PostThe Three Weissmanns of Westport

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