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:  https://nochargebookbunch.com/2010/05/11/the-three-weissmanns-of-westport/

 

Sisterland

9781410460189_p0_v1_s260x420If you knew an earthquake was coming to your neighborhood, would you leave town? Curtis Sittenfeld uses this premise in Sisterland while addressing how siblings are never alike – except when they are.  Adding to the drama, the sisters in the book – Violet and Daisy – are twins with psychic powers or maybe just a sharper sense of intuition.

The story moves back and forth from the girls’ childhood in the seventies of St. Louis, Missouri to present day, with Violet’s fifteen minutes of fame, including an interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show, when she predicts an earthquake on a specific date in the midwest town.  Although both girls share more than a sisterly connection, branding their room “sisterland” as well as their unusual gift for understanding and knowing the others’ thoughts as a shared sister land, only Violet progresses to adulthood as a paid medium.  Daisy, now Kate as an adult, marries a geophysicist, has two children, and burns any possibility of lingering extraordinary “senses” in a silver bowl after her daughter is born.  Although the plot line is melodramatic and, at times, more like a soap opera, Sittenfeld downplays the psychic talent and concentrates on the descriptions of daily life for the sisters.  Kate, the responsible twin, counters Violet’s behavior as the free spirit.  Yet, they understand each other, and share a unique communication that is realistic and engaging.

The sisters’ connections with family and friends add to the drama.  Courtney, the slim, intelligent seismologist and colleague of Kate’s husband, provides a counterpoint for the sisters’ less prestigious career choices. Courtney’s stay-at-home husband creates a confidante for Kate.  Jeremy, the handsome university professor husband, manages his life with Kate and his strange sister-in-law with patience and detached realism, until the possibility of the earthquake threatens to undermine his attendance at an out-of-town conference.  His decision to leave, despite his sister-in-law’s warning and his wife’s pleading, leads to a figurative earthquake at home.

Knowing whether or not the real earthquake actually happens would spoil the anticipation that keeps the narrative moving – and kept me reading.  More importantly, the drama that unfolds shakes the story and leaves behind extraordinary aftershocks.  The book can be long-winded at times, but an easy, entertaining read.