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 to uncover the secrets of another person’s soul”; humor, Schine makes clear, is an essential means of understanding.
To some American critics, her work has seemed British in flavor, and Austen and Barbara Pym are evidently part of her lineage; from a British point of view she seems nonetheless distinctively American—the predominant subject matter of middle-class New York Jewish family life giving her novels their atmosphere, and the drily observant wit of Dorothy Parker or Dawn Powell informing their tone. In manner as well as subject, a hint of old-fashioned New York glamour from the parents’ generation persists into a world shaped by new technologies and new moralities. At its snappiest, the talk in her novels is like a very well written sitcom, shaped in short scenes, with little narrative padding. The risk entailed in so brisk and hilarious a performance is that the characters may seem more the properties of an enormous predetermined joke than plausible human beings.
The comic tone of The Grammarians is established in an early scene where the bawling of the infants in their cribs is revealed to the reader to be fractious adult conversation, with quibbles over the meaning of words and retorts from Billy Wilder (or is it Oscar Wilde?): “No good deed goes unpunished.” Their private language, once they can really speak, seems simply to be a slurred version of ordinary English—“Djever day djever.” (“Foreigners,” mutters someone hearing them in the street.) The only word of “Blingo” they teach their mother, Sally, is “lohfo”: “It meant absolutely no, a word they thought she ought to familiarize herself with as soon as possible in her career as their mother.”
It’s a large part of the charm of The Grammarians that Schine does not enter too methodically into the question of twins’ private languages and shared perceptions, which to another writer might offer much rich matter. In Britain, the case of June and Jennifer Gibbons made for a powerful TV drama, The Silent Twins, in 1986. The sisters, born to Barbadian parents and raised in Britain, communicated verbally with almost no one but each other, and then in a private tongue; only after Jennifer’s sudden death at the age of twenty-nine did June begin to speak normally. There is more inward exploration in Michel Tournier’s Les Météores (1975; translated into English as Gemini), an elaborate study of male twins so identical their father cannot tell them apart. They share a childhood language, “Aeolian,” named after Aeolus, the wind god, and a matter of silence as much as of words. Tournier’s novel turns on the fascinating concept of “geminate intuition”: each twin’s constant awareness of the other’s feelings and sharing of his experiences. The crisis for his Jean and Paul comes when one of them falls in love—for Tournier the rupture of the geminate bond expresses an essential tension in twinship, between a longing to remain forever in its perfect intimacy and a need to escape its claustrophobic narrowness. Something similar perhaps obtains with Schine’s Wolfe girls, though in a less schematic fashion: where Tournier is a tireless and prolix theorist of twinship, Schine is a quick-sighted psychologist of the Jane Austen school who never overexplains.
The twins’ obsession with language is identified early. The “two little Professor Higginses” love My Fair Lady, and at five are studying The King’s English, the famous Edwardian guide to usage, so their tastes have from the start a faintly antiquarian character. The main focus of their devotion, however, is the enormous dictionary their father brings home one evening and sets up on its own stand—the altar of their word cult. Daphne is the main collector of “interesting words”: “She read through books understanding practically nothing of the content, on the lookout only for words she fancied.” It is Laurel who looks them up “in the tissue-paper pages of the dictionary” and records their meanings, the obsolescent “whilom,” “oxters,” and “fugacious” becoming in effect a further private language: “They played with the words as if they were toys, mental toys, lining them up, changing their order, and involving them in intrigues of love and friendship and bitter enmity.”
When the girls grow up and move together to a garret in the East Village in the late 1970s, they are sustained by their shared understanding—“Understanding is love, Laurel thought”—but the opportunities for divergence are magnified. Laurel has a way of keeping things from Daphne, such as losing her virginity or finding employment, but it’s her decision to have a nose job that really causes hurt. It looms as an “implicit insult” to Daphne, a slur on her own looks as well as a willful spoiling of their likeness.
Schine explores the paradoxes of twinhood deftly: the sense of betrayal felt when one finds a lover, the rivalry within a shared identity. Laurel falls for rich Larry. Daphne finds herself engaged to Steven but is worried that he loves her mainly because she’s a twin, and thus not wholly for herself; she dumps him abruptly when she falls for Michael—just in time for the girls to have a joint wedding. Their parents are “thrilled they only have to pay out once.” (“It’s the least we can do,” says Daphne. “After all those outfits they had to buy two of.”) The ceremony that might have closed a conventional marriage comedy is performed, but we’re less than halfway through the book, and Schine, like many writers in middle life, is more and more interested in the long view.
At first the differences are biological—Laurel is the first to become pregnant, another willful alteration of her appearance, though when the baby is born it’s a private victory for Daphne: “Yup. She has my nose.” Laurel as a mother is lost in the new oneness she feels with her daughter. She names the child Charlotte, though her first impulse is to give her a name from their childhood word hoard, Privity, “for there had never been anyone closer to her.” But of course, “they could not really name her Privity. Even in the singular it sounded like a legal principle. Or a hedge. Or a toilet.” Daphne drily notes her sister’s total absorption in motherhood—Laurel watching Charlotte “as if she were a television show”; though when Daphne becomes a mother, Laurel in turn will marvel at her sister obliviously blocking an “infinitesimal café” with her pram.
It turns out that the girls’ office switcheroo has sown the seeds of a larger falling-out. Laurel, pretending to be Daphne, had been bored by her day as receptionist at DownTown magazine and got to talking with the copy editors. Thus a new position was ready for Daphne on her return, and a new outlet for her self-righteous word-lover’s mind. Before long she is writing a column for DownTown, “The People’s Pedant,” “helping the words survive the misconceptions of their authors.” She has a byline, and soon a following: “Daphne was becoming the Miss Manners of modern speech, examining a new word usage or a neologism like a governess judging the curtsies of her charges.” She is inflamed by success, though her sister notes that “the excitement and gratification that came with success did not appear to satisfy her for more than a minute. Success seemed only to stimulate her craving for success.” She lands a guest column at The New York Times and in due course a regular column there. We’re shown little of her work, but she seems to be something like a bad-tempered version of Mary Norris, The New Yorker’s “Comma Queen.”
When Charlotte is two, Laurel sends her to a playgroup and fills the unaccustomed time alone by reading Fowler’s Modern English Usage (second edition), not opened for many years; she is soon intrigued by Fowler’s tolerance of words based on unsound analogies, such as “chaotic” or “operatic” or “dilation”: “none of them has any right to exist,” and yet these words “have now all the rights of words regularly made. They have prospered.” When she enthuses on the phone to the People’s Pedant about Fowler’s humor and open-mindedness, she is put in her place: “‘In the future,’ Daphne was saying, ‘stick to The Chicago Manual of Style.’” Laurel does no such thing—but it is only when she is introduced to an obscure monograph on American English grammar by the language teacher Charles C. Fries that her opposition to her sister’s beliefs becomes entrenched.
Fries draws his examples of irregular but effective usage from letters written to the War Department by ordinary citizens during World War I: “The dirt floors requires continual work,” “All my uncles was in the civil war,” or, what strikes Laurel most forcibly, and philosophically, “Everything I have wrote is the truth.” Daphne deplores such usage as both wrong and insidious, a growing threat to Standard English: “It’s not like it’s literature”—a claim that gives Laurel an idea that changes her life. She fashions a sort of poem-collage from Fries’s examples, then writes a short story on similar principles, which is printed in The New Yorker, then a successful book of stories, The Grammar Ghosts. “Her work is called ‘sampling’ and is compared to hip-hop. And her sister is not speaking to her.”
So the lines are drawn in what will become a long estrangement. No doubt in the background lies the difficult relationship of the rival sister columnists Eppie Lederer, author for nearly fifty years of the advice column “Ask Ann Landers,” and her twin sister, Pauline, who wrote “Dear Abby,” with an even larger national readership in the late 1950s. The Wolfe twins take things a stage further. Their love of words is no less intense than in childhood but is now polarized into prescriptivist and descriptivist positions on grammar and usage. It is lightly handled but a large matter, with an edge of Swiftian satire: the inflexible seizing of positions on matters of minor or doubtful significance raising hidden animosities into irresolvable clashes of dogma. “Should points of grammar carry so much moral weight?” asks a friend. It’s a question this meticulously grammatical novel answers only implicitly.
The Wolfe twins represent a further refinement of Schine’s interest in family dynamics, and especially in those between sisters. The Three Weissmanns of Westport (2010) is a modern-day reimagining of Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s Elinor and Marianne Dashwood recast as a library director and a once-successful but now disgraced literary agent; they are also bumped on by a couple of decades, from expectant teenagers to women perplexed by the compromises of middle age. They leave Manhattan for a semiderelict seaside cottage with their mother, unexpectedly thrown out of her apartment by the husband who has decided, after forty-eight years of marriage, to divorce her. The narrative keeps the classic model in view while taking modern freedoms with it—not least with Miranda, the stormy and temperamental Marianne figure, whose final coming-out is not that of a débutante but of a lesbian. It’s a sign of Schine’s cleverness that it makes, retrospectively, perfect sense, a possibility never glimpsed in 1811 being quietly claimed two centuries on. The sisters’ mother, Betty, is a figure embodying Schine’s skillful handling of comedy in the face of mortality; the aging and death of the mother have become an unavoidable subject in her more recent novels.
In They May Not Mean To, But They Do (2016), Schine seemed more clearly to be testing the limits of comic formulae and the prevailing assumptions of the novel of social comedy—perhaps, after all, more central to the English tradition than the American one. A novelist in such a tradition who is interested in conveying the stark truths of existence—illness, betrayal, death—either finds herself dealing in very black humor or abandons the comic medium that had seemed at the start to be reassuringly adequate to the task. In They May Not Mean To, a general premise of comedy—that order will come under threat and after much confusion be restored—is challenged by the inexorable facts of mortality. Jewish humor can handle colostomy bags as ably as a trained nurse, but when the competent and quick-witted mother Joy has to face the realities of her husband Aaron’s mental and physical decline and then the wilderness of grief after his death, there are, as it were, transitional passages, where the complacent smile is wiped from the reader’s face. At the same time, a kind of formal decay sets in, the book falling into short, inconclusive chapters as Joy’s world shrinks about her and she loses her bearings and sense of purpose. Everything in such circumstances depends on the writer’s tone—wit glints through in the precision of a phrase, the justness of an observation: confirmation that we are in good hands if in unexpected territory.
In The Grammarians the balance between the children’s dramas and those of the parents is skewed strongly toward the children. Sally and Arthur and other members of the family are deftly delineated minor parts, droll as Thurber cartoons—Sally in particular is put constantly on edge by the precocious confidence of her daughters. So it is striking that in the novel’s final section, the daughters surrender the narrative point of view to their mother, with events presented in a shuffled sequence of flashbacks to her cancer, her recovery, and her husband’s funeral, which allows Schine to depict again the bewilderment and rage of bereavement, the widow lost in her own home. There is again perhaps a sense that comedy is facing up to large and wholly unamusing forces it cannot control. But it is more glancingly done than in They May Not Mean To, and widowhood for Sally at least has the advantage of securing the loving attention of her daughters. Laurel and Daphne, who “repelled each other now, like magnets,” outdo each other in attention to their mother—“Did they compete to be the most thoughtful, loving daughter?” That “most” would bring a momentary frown to prescriptivist Daphne’s brow: Surely it should be “more”? But Laurel would see it for what it was, a true superlative, praise for the most thoughtful daughter ever.
Jane Austen favored the classic device of ending a novel with a brisk summary of the marital fortunes of her characters, as if stepping before the curtain once the comedy was done. Schine does something comparable, but much more strange, casting the last ten pages of The Grammarians as a passage of extended clairvoyance on Sally’s part as she slips away from the world. She runs “ten years, twenty, maybe, thirty” into the future, seeing her daughters grow old. The effect is beautiful, wistful, wry, and turns pleasingly at the end on the matter of which twin should inherit the childhood dictionary. It also inevitably gives us a tantalizing sense of a good hundred pages or more of the story that Schine could have given us if she’d cared to. Readers may be unsure if this last-minute dash is a narrative coup or a gracefully handled cop-out. Either way, it is hard not to feel that the real life of the book lies not in its coda but in its sparkling exposition and development.