Words that both Separate Us
and Bring us Together
A Feature Review of
The Grammarians: A Novel
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Reviewed by Meghan Florian
The Grammarians is, at first blush, a novel about language. It is also the rare novel that manages to successfully trace its main characters from birth to old age without losing momentum, author Catherine Schine managing to craft a compelling narrative of childhood that is entertaining in its own right while also establishing the roots of her twin heroines. Save a brief intro, the story begins when Laurel and Daphne, identical twin daughters of Arthur and Sally, are not yet verbal–an interesting choice in a book ostensibly about language. As babies, Laurel and Daphne communicate with each other, mysteriously, from their crib, waiting for their parents to come feed them, communicating with the adults in the only way they can, by crying. Already their differing identities are starting to form.
When I learned the plot of The Grammarians, a book about two word-obsessed twins, it was immediately clear that this is a book meant for someone like me: a writer and an editor, the kind of person who has multiple editions of the Chicago Manual of Style on my shelf alongside an illustrated edition of The Elements of Style. This book will delight language nerds. What I wondered, however, and the question I set out to answer when I began reading the book, is whether The Grammarians is a book meant for anyone else.
As the book follows Laurel and Daphne from their toddler days to elementary school, off to college and into adulthood, it grows beyond wordplay (though the word play is ever present, and ever relevant). The majority of the book details their life post-college, living together in New York City in the 80s, establishing their careers, falling in love, getting married, having children. Through it all, the love of language–both English and the secret shared language that they still occasionally use–is the common thread in both their individual and common lives. For that reason, The Grammarians is a book that could easily get lost in word play, enamoured with it’s own cleverness, and in the early chapters, I worried that it might do just that. However, Schine deploys her intelligence with whimsy and grace, and in her deft hands cleverness is always in service to the plot and the characters, to the story as a whole. It never overwhelms, never becomes cleverness for cleverness own sake, never merely showing off, even as Laurel and Daphne might be perceived as showing off by those around them for the way they play with words as children.
For all the word play, however, The Grammarians is a far weightier novel than it might first appear. It is a story about sisterhood, about nature and nurture, about womanhood and motherhood and family. It is about the ever present question of how a woman can make a life that includes children and career, about fulfillment and dissatisfaction. It is about marriage as much as it is about love of other kinds, both for people and for the work that fills our days. It is about the ways the relationships we hold most dear, those which sustain us, can sometimes be the ones that break us. Considering all this through the lives of identical twin sisters brings a poignancy I did not anticipate.
Early in the novel, in fact, I wondered whether Schine was writing about the idea of twins more so than the twins themselves. Does her portrayal of Laurel and Daphne, redheaded and precocious, sometimes fall into the same fetishising trap within which so many people around them in the book itself are stuck? Perhaps the answer to that question comes in asking why she might have chosen to center the book on twins in the first place, rather than simply sisters of different ages. The closeness of twins, identical or not, is a reality that gives her ample room to explore the challenges of a close familial relationship, and the ways identity forms in relationship to others. She presents two humans as similar as any two humans could be, born and raised in the same home by the same parents, so many environment factors identical in addition to their DNA, and yet they are each such vastly different people. Their sameness highlights their difference, the malleability of identity, and at times its instability. They often face the same challenges, but their paths through them are rarely the same.
When they trade places with one another, for a single day, in their first real jobs, it is as if even as adults they are playing a child’s game, trying on each other’s fledgling careers. In that single day Laurel jumps starts Daphne’s path to becoming a writer, and Daphne wrangles Laurel’s most difficult kindergarten student, and one wonders if they could continue the switch permanently. Yet just as quickly their differences rise to the surface, and they are back to their own jobs, their own lives. Their switch may fool others, but they never fool themselves.
They are the same, but they are never really the same, even long before Laurel dares to have plastic surgery to “fix” her nose, looking ever so slightly different from Daphne for the rest of their lives (a change for which Daphne, it seems, may never forgive her). They do so many of the same things, sometimes together, as when they marry in a double wedding, and sometimes apart, as when they become mothers. They don’t know how to exist alone, but they never quite know how to be together as fully formed adults, either. There are bonds that we hold deep within our bodies, though, such that no amount of disagreement can drive us apart even if we want it to do so. Laurel and Daphne seem inseparable even when they cannot stand each other, even when they are quite literally separated by a rift that seems both silly and insurmountable.
One could say that The Grammarians is a book about language, or that it is a book about relationships, but it can’t help but be about both. It is about the way words can both separate us and bring us together, the way language reflects and shapes who we are, individually and collectively, but it is also about the limits of language. The phantom pain Laurel and Daphne feel when the other is absent is no less real for being invisible or unspoken. It is with respect to their feelings toward each other that their language fails them, even as their differing linguistic passions–one toward correctness and elitism, the other toward a fixation on vernacular–are what keeps them apart. The rift is about so much more than words; perhaps it isn’t even about words at all.
The Grammarians succeeds as a book for both word nerds and, I think, for those who would roll their eyes at us, though perhaps in different ways. In the final pages and waning years, as so much falls away, the words seem both too much and not enough. In the space that opens there, in the absence of words, love remains, and The Grammarians is about love most of all.
Meghan Florian is the author of The Middle of Things: Essays (Cascade Books, 2017). She earned an MTS from Duke Divinity School and an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and is the Managing Editor at MennoMedia. You can find more of her writing at meghanflorian.com.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com