Each chapter of Cathleen Schine’s brilliantly funny new novel, The Grammarians, is headed by a word and its definition in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary. A number of these words, such as “babery,” “oberration,” and “collectitious,” were surely rare in the 1750s and are now quite obsolete, though Schine finds an amusing relevance in them. She has to turn to Merriam-Webster’s, however, for a definition of “twin” that brings out a subtlety missed by Dr. Johnson: as a noun it means a couple or pair, but as a verb it can mean, unnervingly, “to part, sever, sunder.” It turns out to be something like that other Janus-faced verb, “to cleave,” which means both to cling together and to hack apart, and that double meaning goes to the heart of Schine’s fantasia on twinship.
Laurel and Daphne Wolfe are red-headed identical twins from Larchmont, New York, born in the mid-1950s, their names two versions of the same mythological character. Laurel is seventeen minutes older. A potential for difference, and even discord, is understood by the reader, who will be privy throughout their lives to their distinct inner worlds and also unique in knowing at all times which of them is which. In fact, Schine plays the comedy of confused identity very sparingly. There’s the preemptive cry of “I’m the other one,” familiar to all overconfident greeters of identical twins, and a very funny sequence in which the two sisters stand in for each other at their respective places of work, an Upper West Side kindergarten and a downtown magazine office. No one else notices the difference, but each twin feels at the end of the day that she is better at being her sister than her sister is.
Shakespearean analogies—the sundered twins of Twelfth Night and the farcical masters and servants of The Comedy of Errors—might have been templates for Schine, who in other novels has played games with classical models, but here she deftly avoids both sentiment and slapstick. The girls’ parents read Twelfth Night to them “because it is cultural and educational and has twins in it,” but the girls, in bed with measles, argue repeatedly about which of them is to be Viola (neither, understandably, wants to be called Sebastian).
Schine is an instinctively funny writer—not one of those who populate “Humor” sections in bookstores, with their demented determination to make you laugh, but a novelist of sustained light wit and great formal economy. Her scenes in this new novel are especially lean and staccato, everything counting, the dialogue concise and convincingly absurd. She knows the importance, for any good comedy, of characters who are consciously funny as well as those who are unknowingly so. To the twins’ father, Arthur, it is incomprehensible that someone as humorless as his psychiatrist brother Don “could claim…
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