Marcy Dermansky‘s Twins is never quite what you think. At first, I worried that I was reading the literary equivalent of Thirteen. There is a voyeuristic feeling that pervades much of the book, something which almost but not quite makes for an uncomfortable sensation while reading (do I even like this? I thought at first, riveted anyway). Once the Thirteen fears had passed, I worried that that uncomfortable sensation was too similar to the one brought about by the disturbingly close first person POV in a book I’d read earlier in the year (and ultimately felt ambivalent about). I’d just finished Jeff Ford’s The Girl in the Glass, which I adored, and worried that any book I tried next would not measure up.
But then as I kept reading and kept reading and could not put the fucking book down, I stopped worrying and learned to love that odd, visceral quality, to revel in it.
Twins begins the day before the titular twins’ thirteenth birthday, with manipulator master and obsessive sister Sue hysterically begging her sister Chloe, who she sees as more beautiful, more together, more than her, to get corresponding tattoos of each other’s names. Chloe eventually capitulates and they are branded, bonded to each other, just as Sue wants. The different ways in which the two girls view this event casts an early shadow over the story’s trajectory. Sue thinks:
When the scabs healed, the tattoos would be perfect. We would always be a part of each other, our names inscribed on each other’s skin.
But Chloe thinks:
The funny thing was, the tattoos made us different. When we died, it would be easy for a forensic scientist to tell us apart. It wouldn’t be necessary to check our fingerprints or our dental records or measure our bodies from head to toe. After we got our tattoos, we were never really and truly the same.
I didn’t tell this to Sue.
For a while , at least, she’d be happy.
But for Sue to stay happy is an impossibility. And Chloe can’t either. Although Sue is the oddball, the darker one, the weird girl who buys unicycles for herself and her sister and I wanted to like her best, it was Chloe that I ultimately became most attached to. But I feel guilty saying that, even now. As if I should stand in for their extreme absentee parents and love them both equally.
The exquisite precision with which Dermansky captures the personalities and complexities of Chloe and Sue is completely absorbing and manages to make a litany of nearly over-the-top events and issues emotionally believable. The writing is fierce and funny and, at times, heartbreaking. I didn’t even know if I liked Chloe or Sue at the beginning–in fact, there are times throughout when I hate either or both of them, because they can be just as annoying and horrifying as real teenagers–but by the middle of the book I was terrified for both of them anyway. Terrified that Chloe would lose basketball, lose everybody, fall apart; terrified that Sue would only ever find people who wanted to use her, that she’d drive herself mad with her eating disorder and obsessiveness.
There’s nothing I love more than a book that involves me completely. And this one did that and then some. I rooted for these two girls, even when they fucked up unbelievably, and somehow, miraculously, at the end, I got to feel they’d be okay but not in any dishonest way. No, Twins is absolutely, unflinchingly honest about just how over the top teenagers and their emotions can be, how real those emotions and struggles are and how much they matter. How they really do matter. Just not in the way you think they do when you’re an actual teenager.
And not in the way you thought they did when you started reading the book.
Marcy Dermansky’s film reviews (and check out the rest of her site)
Her story "Perfect" in the Barcelona Review
Dermanksy’s recent guest blogging stint at Old Hag starts here
The Village Voice’s take
Collected Miscellany’s take