Cathleen Schine’s marvelous new novel is a book besotted with words. Fugacious. Turgid. Rebarbative. (Don’t be embarrassed. Most of us have to look up that one, too.) A dictionary is worthy of reverence, and grammar is “ethically good. If you think of all these words just staggering around, grammar is their social order, their government.”
But as anyone who has found herself arguing over the Oxford comma knows, words don’t always bind us. Language can separate us, because everything and anything can tear us apart. We’re human, sensitive to insult and inclined to envy and infighting, especially with the people closest to us.
Still, words mean everything to the identical twins in “The Grammarians.” Daphne and Laurel Wolfe communicate even before they’re born. They invent a secret language — their bemused parents call it “Blingo” — and they fall in love with a huge dictionary their father brings home, marveling over inconsistencies: “How can ‘mean’ mean mean and also mean mean?” Laurel asks.
As twins, they’re parts of a whole. People stare, but together they “are beautiful and symmetrical, two lovely girls walking hand in hand, two sides of the folded paper, shapely as origami, mysterious, confident, radiant. You are not an animal or an experiment. You are math. You are perfection.”
But life reminds them it is imperfect. Separation is inevitable and painful. Daphne is furious when Laurel wants a nose job — it’s her nose, too, isn’t it? Laurel is jealous of Daphne’s success as a grammar columnist. Daphne is unhappy when Laurel gets pregnant and ditches her job as a kindergarten teacher to be a stay-at-home mom. And when Laurel starts playing with words in a unique blend of poetry and hip-hop, the chasm between them grows so deep that all it takes is that dictionary to divide them for good.
Schine finds the line between comedy and tragedy that she treads so skillfully in such novels as “The Three Weissmans of Westport” and “They May Not Mean to But They Do” (though as always she leans more on the side of comedy). Like her twins, she revels in language, its idiosyncrasies and our mangling of it. “Copyediting,” she writes, “is helping the words survive the misconceptions of their authors.” No editor can read this sentence without nodding.
But you don’t need to be a writer or editor to fall under Schine’s spell. “The Grammarians” is about family, the ebb and flow of our deep and tenuous connections to the people who make us who we are. Can Laurel and Daphne heal this break? Maybe. Put in perfect, seamless order, words can heal anything.
Connie Ogle is a Florida-based writer.
By: Cathleen Schine.
Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books/FSG, 258 pages, $27