A story that centers around twin sisters who intensely appreciate grammar does not guarantee humor, but Cathleen Schine’s latest novel provides it in abundance. “The Grammarians,” Schine’s 11th novel revolves around twins Laurel and Daphne Wolfe. Schine acutely depicts sisterhood, through both the time Laurel and Daphne spend together and the time they spend jarringly apart. Though it is a generally lighthearted book, family affairs eventually cast a morose shadow over the Wolfe family. Through the prism of the twins’ mostly playful relationship, Schine casts insight into the complexities of family.
Laurel and Daphne’s lives changed forever one night when their father lugged something of immeasurable value out of his Buick and into the house. First, he set up a thin stand in the living room. Then, “the biggest book imaginable was placed on top, open, each side swelling like a wave in the ocean.” With the placement of the biggest book imaginable upon the stand in the Wolfe’s living room, Laurel and Daphne’s lives were thereby anchored to the details of the English language.
The girls exist in their early lives as two complementary halves of a remarkable whole. When Daphne enjoys a word, Laurel immediately looks it up. But this complementary nature is often contradicted by fundamental differences between the two, as can be seen through their early explorations of language. “How could Daphne stand it, not knowing the meaning, just guessing from the contexts of sentences she didn’t really understand? It was ridiculous,” Laurel thinks. Though they both adore the nuances of words and their applications, this shared love contrasts with essential disagreements on how it should be applied. It is a somewhat heartbreaking difference, and becomes increasingly so throughout the book.
After they both graduate from college, the twins live together in New York City. Laurel becomes a private-school kindergarten teacher, and Daphne becomes a secretary. Though their days are spent apart, their evenings are almost always spent together, indulging each other in their eloquent recaps of each passing day. The lives of the twins begin to diverge when they attend a party for Daphne (— who has become a copy editor (— at her work. Daphne goes home with an English reporter, which leaves Laurel to wander up to the roof, where she meets her future husband. Though upon meeting him, Laurel’s instinct it to think, “I wonder if he would be a good boyfriend for Daphne?” Then, upon second thought, “I wonder if he would be a good boyfriend for me?” This insight into Laurel’s mind highlights the way the twins exist for much of their early lives (— two only slightly different beings, so similar that they almost conflate each other to be one in the same. This overlap is exemplified when Daphne thinks to herself, “my sister is me if I were different.”
Despite the way that the sisters overlap, their differences eventually drive them apart. They each have a single daughter, and then they both dive into their respective fields. Laurel, after continuing teaching, begins to explore more abstract uses of language, and stumbles upon a goldmine of material. But before Laurel is able to make this realization, Daphne’s copy editing has evolved into a full blown regular column -- in which she corrects grammar -- for The New York Times. The situation reeks of the intense way that the twins compete with each other.
Laurel’s epiphany leads her to publish revolutionary works of found-poetry, which situates her on a rival pedestal to Daphne and her column. The sisters continue this bitter competition for the rest of the book. Their formerly daily phone calls devolve all the way into not talking to each other for decades at a time. The colossal dictionary from their childhood becomes the only thing that connects them; it spends half the year with Laurel and half the year with Daphne, as was written in their mother’s will. The love that the twins were once able to bond over becomes the fuel for their eventual rift. The competition they once reveled in ends up all but ruining their bond. Schine’s portrayals of the twins are genuinely joyous at times, though in the end, the twins eventual separation serves as a reminder to perhaps not take things, such as grammar, too seriously.