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Episode 309

All About Twins

01/27/14
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Posted by Mary Ann

After reading “Her,” a harrowing memoir about an indentical twin who loses her sister, I thought I was going to have a hard time coming up with a reading list about twins. Guess again! Twins – their relationship, their identities, their eerie connections, have been a staple of many readable books, especially novels. They bring up such basic issues of identity. What is it like to live in a world with someone who is so much like you? We all think we’re unique, but twins must look at that premise from a different angle.

The first book I want to mention is “I Know This Much Is True” by Wally Lamb. When this novel came out in 1998, it was widely read, in part because Lamb’s previous novel, “She’s Come Undone,” was one of the first books featured by Oprah’s Book Club. Selection by Oprah meant that a book with tough material could actually do quite well commercially.

And this book is tough. It tells the story of identical twin brothers, Thomas and Dominick, in a small Connecticut town. Thomas is a paranoid schizophrenic, Dominick is “normal.” After Thomas commits an act of sacrificial self-mutilation, thinking it will help end the war in Iraq, Dominick takes an active part in Thomas’ psychiatric treatment, and becomes aware of all sorts of stuff burbling beneath the surface of his life.

Oprah was known for picking books in which the main characters experience a lot of adversity, and believe me, Thomas’s troubles are only part of the situation. One reviewer said that “I Know This Much Is True” is big and somewhat blowzy ….but it never grapples with anything less than life’s biggest questions. How do you live with unresolved issues that die with the dead? How do you deal with an abusive parent who, nevertheless, was always there for you? Being touched by an angel is not an option.”

Moving on, a book that I have not read, but have heard many great things about, is “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese.

Verghese became famous for his nonfiction book, “My Own Country,” which recounted his experience as a doctor treating AIDS patients at a rural clinic in Mississippi. A physician and teacher at a medical school, he is a writer of great empathy, as well as life accomplishments.

“Cutting for Stone” tells the story of two twin brothers, Marion and Shiva Stone. They were conjoined at the head at birth, but separated; their mother was a nun who died from complications of her hidden pregnancy, and their father, a doctor, disappears from their lives. They are raised by two other doctors at the hospital in Addis Ababa where their parents worked. Both brothers grow up to be physicians; though they’re eerily close as children, they eventually go their separate ways but are reunited in a plot development having to do with their mysterious father.

This is a big, absorbing novel – some reviewers faulted it for having too much about medicine in it, but every single person I’ve ever talked to about it who has read it has loved it. So there you go.

I want to move on to London and an authentically creepy and highly praised novel called “Her Fearful Symmetry” by Audrey Niffeneger, who broke out big with her first novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife.”

This novel, whose title comes from the poem “The Tyger” by William Blake, features not one, but two sets of twins. One set includes a Elspeth, a ghost, the other set is a pair of sisters, American nieces , Julia and Valentina, who inherit the ghost’s apartment (the ghost’s identical twin is the twins’ mother) and several million pounds. One twin’s heart is on the right, the other is in its proper place. This is a book about obsession! Thwarted love! Highgate Cemetery in London! Try saying symmetry and cemetery real fast, and see how close they are. This book sounded so delicious, I ran out and picked it up from the library.

Another novel about twins, which is based on a true story, is “Chang and Eng” by Darren Strauss. This novel is based on the lives of Chang and Eng Bunker, conjoined Siamese twins who were born in Bangkok in the early 19th century. They became a worldwide sensation, and after touring all over eventually settled on a farm in North Carolina, where they actually married (two separate women) and sired 21 children.

Well, now, there’s some material not for the faint of heart! One reviewer wrote that the novel asks: How can identity form in the absence of solitude? This novel, Strauss’ first, was widely praised, and his follow-up book, a memoir called “Half a Life,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. That book also told a tough story, about how he, as a more or less clueless teenager driving friends around, killed a girl on a bike in an automobile accident, and how it has affected him for the rest of his life. Can’t wait to see what he is up to next.

Quickly, I want to mention one work of nonfiction about twins that got fine reviews: “One and the Same: My Life as a Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone Else’s Struggle to Be Singular” by Abigail Pogrebin. This memoir about Abigail and her identical twin Robin, who largely stayed together (they both went to Yale, both shared an apartment afterward), is basically positive about being a twin, but acknowledges the pain when one twin decides they have to put some distance between herself and her “other.” This is one of those books motivated by a personal experience that goes wide – Pogrebin interviewed more than 40 sets of twins, from NFL football players to Holocaust survivors, to come up with her conclusions on what being a twin is really like.

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