Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Review of Cathleen Schine's The Grammarians

Of course we judge books by the cover! Not since elementary school have readers been satisfied by those library-bound generic blue and green covers. I'm often drawn to cover art, and I've even heard that books with blue on the cover sell better than others. I have also heard plenty of evidence that the human eye is drawn to text. (Why else do I lean in close to try to read strangers' tattoos?)

For my people, though, Cathleen Schine's recent novel The Grammarians appealed to me strictly on the basis of the title. The novel tells the story of twin sisters Daphne and Lauren Wolfe, who shared a private twin language from the time they were babbling infants, as well as an intense fascination with language. Their philology only increases when their father brings home a huge used copy of Webster's New International Dictionary, which he places on the stand the girls call an altar. Ironically, they discover the volume is missing the page where the word altar would have been defined.

Schine's chapter divisions are marked by entries from Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language,  often words strangely related to their unique relationship. As the girls grow up, much of the time sharing an apartment and even wearing matching clothes into young adulthood, they also make awkward attempts to separate. Laurel has a nose job, which Daphne takes as a direct affront. They have a double wedding--challenging since Daphne isn't even dating anyone when Lauren becomes engaged. Daphne lands a receptionist job at a small newspaper, where she moves first into a copy editing position, and eventually becomes a language columnist writing for Vogue. Laurel, lacking any actual qualifications, lands a job teaching kindergarten at a private school until she turns lines from government publications into found poetry.

Sometimes the jumps in time are surprisingly abrupt, skipping years, even decades. Shine surrounds the girls not only with loving, quirky parents but with an extended family and a set of work friends and spouses that often serve as ideal foil characters.

The best part of the book for me, the part I want to discuss with other readers who also love words, is the girls' razor sharp fascination with language. The longer I read, the quicker I anticipated the girls' response to misuse of words and phrases. While I am often disappointed when a plot line is predicable, my own recognition of the Wolfe girls' sensitivity to language gave me the satisfaction of an omniscient narrator. "I knew you'd catch that one!" I wanted to cheer each time the girls homed in on some misuse or when they found themselves fascinated by the flexibility of words with multiple meanings. In fact, by the end of the book, I'd made a list. Now if only I had a twin with whom to share it.

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