“The Grammarians: a Novel” (Sarah Crichton Books/FSG), by Cathleen Schine
Cathleen Schine’s captivating new novel, “The Grammarians,” centers on a pair of identical twins named Daphne and Laurel, after the Greek myth of transformation, and their obsessive love of language. It’s also about their family, and what happens to them as they grow older and some die.
In short, it’s about everything and nothing, written with the tender precision and clarity of a painting by Vermeer, had that 17th-century Dutchman portrayed scenes of middle-class Jewish life in mid- to late 20th-century New York.
At first Daphne and Laurel’s bond appears to be unbreakable. They delight in being identical and inseparable, with virtually interchangeable needs. They even have their own secret language, which they’ve been babbling since they were babies. But gradually they begin to differentiate. Rivalries develop, although both remain enamored of words, language and stories.
After college, Laurel becomes a kindergarten teacher while Daphne gets a job as a proofreader at an alternative newspaper in downtown Manhattan. “There is something fair and just in what we do,” she declares one day to a fellow copy editor. “Grammar is good. I mean ethically good. If you think of all these words just staggering around, grammar is their social order, their government.”
Eventually, Daphne becomes a semi-famous columnist, “the Miss Manners of modern speech,” offering up fussy advice on language in a column for The New York Times. Laurel, meanwhile, discovers her true vocation as an experimental poet, giving her license to ignore grammatical rules and to embrace language as it’s spoken.
Their disagreements escalate until one day, the indestructible bond ruptures. But in this tale of transformations, characters evolve, and nothing is forever.
Schine, the best-selling author of “The Three Weissmanns of Westport” and other novels, knows a thing or two about words herself. She moves the plot forward from decade to decade, evoking entire neighborhoods, social and economic strata, and fads and fashions, with just a few strokes.
The point of view shifts seamlessly — from Daphne to Laurel, their husbands, a cousin Brian. It even includes a prophecy, narrated by a dying character. And even though Schine herself is not a twin, she writes convincingly about twinship.
“This is what words do,” Laurel thinks as she embarks on her new career. “They call out from the page and force you to listen. No, they allow you to listen.” The same could be said of this wry and elegant novel.