Cathleen Schine’s 2019 novel, with its love of language and wordplay, is our first book du jour of 2021! Schine has a nice list of publications, but this is our first dip into her prose. In this novel, readers follow the lives of twins — redheaded, word-loving, New Yorker sisters. Daphne and Laurel Wolf are supremely sensitive to grammar and verbiage. Nonetheless, they move along different paths in life. Not only are we exposed to the bonds of sisterhood, but we also relish in the glories of etymology and semantics.

Jennifer:  Well, I guess I’d like to start with your personal interests! We sorta mutually agreed to begin with this book without resistance from either of us. From where did your interest stem?

For me, it was recommended by an old friend who knows I’m a writer and I place a lot of value on this subject matter.

Lara: I remember seeing the cover and the title, and was kind of instantly sold. It went on my Goodreads “To Read” list immediately. When you recommended it, it was a no brainer.

Jennifer: Did you like it?

Lara: I liked it; I didn’t love it. I liked the humor. I liked the premise. I liked the writing. The structure was problematic for me. Not linear, but not alternating timelines. A bit of a twist-and- turn-timeline that was challenging for me to keep straight. I will say that we are still living in a pandemic with lots on our minds and lots of distractions. It’s easy to be hyper-sensitive about some things, dismissive of others, and completely ambivalent, too. I am not sure I am still in the best mindset for all books. Oh, and she slipped in-an-out of different points of view in the beginning, which was kind of interesting, but also a little gimmicky.

Jennifer: You know, I didn’t notice these narrative things that you’re mentioning—which isn’t to say I’m following books any better than you; I’m still pretty dismissive of things that I don’t instantly get. But I found her narration pretty seamless.

I do agree, though: I liked it; I didn’t love it.

I’ll be honest (and I feel a little bad about saying this): I didn’t like some of the references to Jewish people or Jewish food. It struck me as tad—just a tad—offensive. Maybe it was my mood, because I’m the Queen of Loving Jewish Humor; however, I felt as if the comments were like winks that said, I know we’re all like this, so I’m laughing at it. Bugged me.

Lara: I didn’t catch those or have them land the same way you did. Not sure why or why not.

Jennifer: This book is, essentially, a conversation about language — maybe a bit too complex to summarize. I know that, as a writer myself, I felt as if Schine knew considerably more about this subject than I. (I even want to write than me.) I did really enjoy her love of this oft-neglected stuff. Also, as a writer, I’ve had copyeditors for my four books — and I’m always blown away by the role of the copyeditor. In this story, Daphne works as one. Schine writes maybe my favorite line:

“Copyediting is helping the words survive the misconceptions of their authors.”

True. That’s what copyeditors do.

Lara: Well, it’s that. It’s also a story about family, siblings in particular. Twins, if we want to get even more granular. I loved, if not finding myself sometimes rolling my eyes at, their TREMENDOUS precociousness. I loved that their dad brought home a giant Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition and a stand to house it on when the twins were still very young.

“He flipped through the biggest book imaginable, the dictionary, a book that contained and explained every word in the language, he said. The print was so small it looked like print for a mouse to read.”

FUN FACT: My brother and I grew up with a giant dictionary that perched on a wooden cabinet my dad named Winston. Whenever we didn’t know a word, we would look it up. It also had storage and a door that tucked behind it, where we had board games and cards. I haven’t thought about Winston in a long time, and reading this book brought up a very fond set of memories.

Jennifer: Um, get ready, Lara. You’re going to kill me right now. Though I’m begging you not to edit it out. It’s just so perfect for this discussion . . .

Was the wooden cabinet or the dictionary named Winston? That, my verbose and fine reader/writer, is a freakin’ dangling modifier. I think you mean this: My brother and I grew up with a giant dictionary that my dad named Winston perched on a wooden cabinet.

You’re going to edit this out, aren’t you?

Many would; I wouldn’t. I don’t give a shit.

But, yeah, over-the-top precocious.

But we are called The Grammar Police for a reason.

And I think, very honestly, it is supremely important for parents to have Winstons in well-esteemed places. Good parenting. (We don’t, so we suck.)

Lara: Well, smarty smartenheimer, the CABINET was named Winston. NOT the dictionary. So, dangle THAT modifier!

The parts I enjoyed the most were their childhoods, their foray into careers, their professional rivalry, and not so much their marriages and families. I wanted to spend more time with their feuding. I thought Schine wrote that well, just not enough.

Jennifer: I’d agree that it seemed a bit disproportionate in how we spent our time. I liked their young New Yorker-selves, but that’s probably my weird quirkiness. I also felt less interested in their marriages. I kinda found myself drawn to the dad.

The sisters, becoming well-known in their own writing spheres, go to battle over the role of grammar. As Susan Dominus puts it in the New York Times,

“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.”

I realize this sounds pretty highfalutin, but it’s there. I personally might be in the Daphne School of Thought.

Lara: I’d have to say I am a hybrid between the two. I did think it was a nice touch to start each chapter with a word, relating to that chapter, and its definition taken from The Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson. Interesting that the definitions aren’t from Webster’s.

Jennifer:  Why?

Lara: Because Webster’s was the version they grew up with.

Jennifer: It felt like a smart book to me.

Lara: Definitely a smart book. All in all, I liked it. I would be more likely to recommend it to bookish friends and readers, versus the general public. And, she’s intrigued me enough to consider reading at least another of her books. The Grammarians is her 11th novel.            

Jennifer: I feel like you’ve been reading a ton lately. What books did you hit in January? I read David Sedaris’s The Best of Me, and he’s always great though I don’t want to read his attempts at fiction ever. I read a bunch of others too. But I gotta highlight two I’m in the middle of, and I feel like I’m taking a really great graduate class in creative writing: Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses and A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders. Both are making me think!

Lara: I am so glad you aren’t asking me to read George Saunders with you. I am sure he’s a lovely man. His writing? An acquired taste I haven’t yet acquired.

Well, according to my Goodreads Reading Challenge for this year, I am a book ahead of schedule. Not quite sure how that happened. But, I have read, and loved, Anxious People by Fredrik Backman and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I cringed, but thought a lot about Luster by Raven Leilani. And I read, and did not like, How You Will Measure Your Life by some Harvard Business School dude. But they can’t all be winners. I feel like I have hit the jackpot reading two greats in the first two months of the year.

Readers! What have you been reading and loving, or not? Let us know in the comments!

Next Up!

Join us in February when we discuss Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind.


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