In Love With Language, but Not Necessarily With Each Other

In Love With Language, but Not Necessarily With Each Other

“The Grammarians” is set in the world, familiar to Schine’s readers, of well-educated New York Jews who wear their religion lightly, reverent of gods like the Marx Brothers and offerings like lox. The altar, for Daphne and Laurel, is a substantial stand in their childhood home on which rests a massive dictionary. Faith and politics make cameo appearances in “The Grammarians,” but at the novel’s heart lies a profound philosophical question about the nature of the self, as Daphne and Laurel struggle to figure out who they are on their own and in relation to each other. Who gets to be the subject of their story and who is the object? Where does one person end and the other begin? When the sisters were babies, their mother worried that they were, perhaps too much, “each other.” Their father disagreed: “They were alike, two peas in a pod, but each had its own circumference. Daphne followed Laurel, a tiny acolyte. He wondered if Daphne would ever turn around and walk away. He wondered if Laurel would follow.” Their parents fear the girls will never evolve independently and also worry that they inevitably will.

Laurel, the firstborn, seems most eager, as she reaches adulthood, to define her own boundaries. Sharing clothing and candy as children was one thing for Laurel, “but she didn’t want to share everything that befell her — or might befall her. She didn’t want it all to disappear into her sister’s existence.” (We now pause to note that in Greek mythology the nymph Daphne actually morphed into a laurel tree.) Laurel is in love when she marries, but she’s also enamored of the way this new pairing renders her distinct. “I can be myself with you,” she says, over and over, to her new husband. “I have a self with you.” Daphne marries at the same time, but then their paths diverge. Laurel, who has been teaching kindergarten, becomes pregnant and stops working to stay home with her baby. Daphne, who started out as a copy editor at a downtown newspaper, is already winning attention for a language column called “The People’s Pedant.” She eventually becomes a minor celebrity in certain circles, a columnist for The New York Times, the author of books that comment on culture as much as grammar and usage.

Daphne scoffs at Laurel’s bourgeois Upper West Side life, the luxurious cave where she has retreated with her baby. Laurel wonders quietly about the glee with which Daphne skewers the language-fallible and is struck by her sister’s egotism. Laurel prefers the more generous boundaries around language that she finds, when her daughter starts preschool, in reading Fowler’s “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.” Laurel eventually becomes a poet, discovering beauty and inspiration in the imperfectly written letters parents from around the country sent to the Department of War during World War I. The two sisters find themselves in their own private war, carrying on a long tradition of bitterly disputing grammarians, dueling from afar through their columns and book reviews. Daphne waves the flag for prescriptivists, who believe in upholding language’s historical precedents, while Laurel champions the descriptivists, who argue that language grows and changes over time, with equally legitimate results. How do two people who start out, essentially, as clones, end up believing themselves to be so different? The pleasure of this novel lies in the answers Schine provides through her storytelling, the accretion of moments of chance and perspective that make the various resolutions seem almost inevitable.

The novel’s other luxury is the permission Schine gives herself to revel in language itself. The twins, helpless punners, are forever fascinated by the doubleness of words: Daphne wonders one day, mid-blintz, whether she and her sister — so tied together — could actually ever be “tied,” perceived as perfectly equal. As Schine’s characters pause to appreciate a word like “flurry,” the reader hears its lightness anew. Schine imagines the stories that words hold for the twins, words like “whilom,” which “was light and airy and lost, like a lady in a white nightgown wandering through a field of flowers filmed over with dewdrops.” Eventually, even words the characters don’t single out seem to jump off the page, demanding inspection and appreciation: “analogy”; “obstreperous”; “cathedral.”

For better or worse, the moving parts of “The Grammarians” don’t snap together with the same satisfying click that they do in some of Schine’s earlier novels. The supporting characters feel more peripheral, although that may be formally appropriate for a novel that tries to capture the insularity of identical twins. A much younger cousin, Brian, seems mostly to be a vehicle for amusing observations like this one, noted by Daphne: “Brian, about to start college, was as annoying as ever, but now he was annoying the right people.”

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