A Review of the Novel The Grammarians

A friend of mine is a bookseller who often tells me about newly published works.

Knowing my interest in twins, she suggested that I read the latest novel by Cathleen Schine, titled The Grammarians. The book’s protagonists are red-haired identical twins named Laurel and Daphne. The author explains that their names reference a Greek myth in which the river god Peneus turns the nymph Daphne into a laurel tree to protect her from Apollo.

The novel is an easy read and often comical and entertaining. As a twin psychologist, I appreciated several aspects of the story. The precocious twin protagonists often behave in an imperious manner. They drive their paternal uncle and younger singleton cousin crazy with their twin antics and double-barreled verbal assaults. In their early years, they are contemptuous of their mother’s inability to participate in their shared world and secret language. Their mother feels intimidated and defeated by their exclusionary attitude.

As the title indicates, both Laurel and Daphne are fascinated with words. When the girls are five years old, their beloved father comes home with a used copy of the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. It rests upon a “sanctified” dais in their father’s study. Laurel loves to look up the meaning of the words while Daphne is content to listen to the cadence and melody of the pronunciations.

The sisters attend college together and then move to New York City to look for work. Laurel, labeled in the novel as the older, wiser, taller, and bolder twin, finds a job as a kindergarten teacher but initially withholds the news from Daphne. Though Laurel is secretly happy that she beat her sister, she is also guilt-ridden and motivates Daphne to find a job. I especially enjoyed the passage where the twins switch jobs for a day, and each finds a solution to a problem that the other is unable to solve.

Both eventually marry and live out their dream of having a double wedding. However, the twins begin to grow apart in adulthood for many reasons. As is so often the case for real-life twins, external factors converge to disrupt the peaceful, orderly, internalized twin world built upon years of childhood enmeshment. Laurel decides to get a nose job. She later becomes pregnant and leaves her job. Her choice to become a stay-at-home mom drives Daphne to distraction. Daphne cannot fathom why her double has made such a preposterous decision and is unwilling to recognize Laurel’s choice. Meanwhile, Daphne is consumed with her successful career, which Laurel secretly envies. After Laurel’s daughter is born, Daphne feels that her sister no longer makes time for her. Moreover, Daphne resents that the new baby is now the focus of family get-togethers.

An additional point of contention is the lifestyle that each woman embraces. Daphne lives in Brooklyn, and Laurel resides on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In addition, their professional careers eventually careen in opposite directions. Daphne, a copyeditor and grammar columnist, is devoted to preserving the dignity and formal elegance of traditional language. Laurel, who has become a poet, is thrilled by the changing nature of English.

The “winners” in this situation are the twins’ mother and husbands. The husbands become best friends and learn how to tolerate their wives’ mutual animosity while maintaining their affection for one another, often in secret. The twins’ mother, Sally, finally gets to develop a relationship with each of her daughters and granddaughters. Sally hopes that her plan to have Laurel and Daphne share custody of the coveted dictionary after she dies will eventually lead to them reunite and rekindle their twin connection.

Readers unfamiliar with the emotional development of twins might not understand how the ordinary circumstances of life can disrupt such a seemingly unbreakable bond. If different-age siblings made similar decisions, would they feel such animosity toward one another? With twins, these disparities take on a different meaning. Instead of feeling free to decide where to live and how to raise one’s child, some twin pairs, like Daphne and Laurel, cannot accept these divergent lifestyle choices. Since the twins lived their entire lives locked in a symmetrical style of thinking and living, any dissimilarities can create a deep schism in their relationship. If their opinions and choices diverge, they no longer feel connected. The deviation jeopardizes their relationship like a crack in a ship’s hull. The bigger the crack, the less likely the vessel can be salvaged.

Image courtesy of andy carter (CC BY 2.0)

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