Cathleen Schine: The Grammarians


It was difficult sometimes when both girls were red in the face and vibrating with infant rage.

“I wish I knew what they wanted,” he said one night, holding the twins as his wife came in with the bottles, both properly warmed this time.

“Take a wild guess!” the little girls cried out. “We want those bottles!”

“I think they’re making themselves quite clear,” their mother said, and she laughed. Though sometimes they unnerved Sally, too, chattering away in nonsense syllables as if it were a real language. (7)

It is a real language, though the twins are tiny babies, and even at that age they’re like wise little aliens observing the adults in their world. It’s not only their mother who finds them unnerving; Uncle Don is a psychiatrist, but the girls run rings around him:

That morning the girls had stood in front of him, side by side, while he read the Sunday paper, and stared.

“What is wrong with these two?” said Uncle Don, who never addressed them directly.

“Don, really,” said Sally. “Is that how you talk to your patients?”

The girls began to sway together to the left, then the right, then again to the left.

“Jesus, what are they doing now?”

“Swaying,”  Laurel said.

“From side to side,” Daphne added.

Their parents burst out laughing but Uncle Don left the room. (11)

Cathleen Schine does these scenes of family life so well. They’re funny of course, but not just funny. They have their roots in something we all recognise, that peculiar dance of personalities that makes up each family. And she does something very clever in morphing the girls’ twin language into an obsession with language in general, with the meanings of words and the ways they’re used, with all the funny and strange quirks we take for granted. Language puts them together in a world apart, but as they grow older it begins to take them in different directions. As a copy editor and expert on usage Daphne becomes a guardian of language as she thinks it ought to be; Laurel begins to write  “poems of appropriation”

in the  phrases of mothers and daughters and sons and widows and wives, phrases that improbably survive, like lines of Sappho, from letters collected by the Department of War (212)

They approach language differently because of who they are, but that makes them even more who they are, and further apart. It’s “a love letter to sibling rivalry and the English language” Schine herself says, but it’s also a clever allegory about what holds families together even as siblings take different paths in life, even as they insist on their separateness.

I did have a faint feeling that maybe it was all a bit too neat – identical twins to underline that unity/separateness theme – but that’s a minor quibble. Cathleen Schine is well worth your time.






6 thoughts on “Cathleen Schine: The Grammarians

  1. I tried the Three W of W and couldn’t take it. But I bought They May Not Mean to but They Do. I was wondering if you’d get around to this and I’m glad to see you liked it. I’ve had my eye on it .

  2. This probably isn’t for me if I’m being honest, but it does sound very well observed. Is it a newly published book? I don’t think I’ve ever come across this author before…

    1. This is her new book, only recently published. We’ve reviewed a couple of her others. I liked They May Not Mean To But They Do best. She does what she does very well, but I do share other Gert’s feeling that I’ve read enough now.

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