Lori Lansens's sophmore novel, The Girls, follows Rose and Ruby Darlen, conjoined twins approaching their landmark 30th birthday. Like Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time I once again found myself in awe of an author's amazing ability to transport his/herself (and the reader) so deeply into the mind of a character you don't meet everyday, if at all. The sisters take turns writing chapters with their distinctly separate voices. Sometimes you get so lost in the story that you forget they are joined at the head.
On November 18th I tried to write about my baby sister turning 30, about our relationship with one another, but words failed me. It was too painful, too complicated, and I always feel like people just won't get it. To the outside world, what we have is often viewed as unhealthy, not normal, and a little scary at times. As Lori Lansens writes, "I love my sister as I love myself. I hate her that way too."
Exactly 1 year, 4 months and 11 days younger than me, my mother had her "oops" moment when I was just 8 months-old. My baby sister arrived by scheduled cesarian and was incubated for jaundice for a few days. I was brought to the hospital room and turned every pillow and bouquet upside down looking for "Baby? Bay-bee?"
A month later, my interest subsided, morphing into the greenest of envy. "Um, excuse me, but wasn't I the centre of everyone's universe? Bitch please! Who the fuck do you think you are coming all up in here like this." My favourite Christmas photo involves me trying to escape a perfectly nice Kodak moment next to our fake tree (that they only got rid of two years ago mind you!). In the moment the photo was captured, my struggle caused my month-old sister's head to hit the edge of the sharp teak coffee table.
And so began the unique dance of sisters who were not quite twins, nor technically conjoined, but locked together for life. In some ways so utterly wonderful, and in others, so toxicly unhealthy.
Lori Lansens gets it. Reading The Girls , I was struck by how much I could relate to the characters of Rose and Ruby. Next to my husband and now my son, my sister is the closest person to me on this planet. In many ways, she knows things about me that no other human could ever know. Things you can only know about someone by sharing their history (and their living space) for decades. In our case, a quarter of a century. Just the sheer being aroud someone for so long. It's like you pick things up about each other through osmosis.
Much like conjoined twins, we are a package. You want one of us, you usually get both through no choice of your own. There was never a birthday party I was invited to that I went to without my sister (though mainly because my mother forced me to take her everywhere. Looking at it now, I realize it was a ploy to get alone time). Even our early dating experiences were side-by-side. Brothers, best friends, these were often relationships of convenience. "You go for him, I'll go for that one and we can all hang out." As we grew older, the fates of our romantic relationships were sealed by the guy's abilty or inability to also woo the sister. The Dog knew when he put the ring on my finger that Sista Sunny would be coming along for parts of the journey too. He still doesn't fully get it, but he rarely objects.
In high school, we were referred to as The Twins. Not only do we look similar, but we also sound identical. Unlike Rose and Ruby, we do finish one another's sentences. Or say the exact same thing at the same time. Or find that we are both humming the same obscure old pop song out of nowhere. We call this phenomenon the "Me Too" syndrome. "My right eye hurts." "Me too!"
But that's really where the similarities stop. We have common interests (Duran Duran, shopping, family, travel, pop culture) but our tastes in these individual areas vary greatly. We do our best to respect the style of the other. She's Bloor Street to my Kensington Market. She's Simon Le Bon, I'm John Taylor.
My sister will give you the Juicy Couture top off her back ("I'm getting bored of it anyway.") if it makes you smile. She feels sorry for me that I am married to a perma-poor artist and can't afford a real designer bag ("Don't worry. The fake one looks pretty real."). She doesn't see that this doesn't really bother me at all, but she does appreciate how happy I can be in a vintage shop. To me finding that one perfect item with a history is equivalent, if not better, than any Louis Vuitton bag. Likewise, I can understand how she might feel carrying her Speedy around town like an ingenue.
My sister does not feel things in greys, rather in absolute black or white. "I HATE house parties!" "I LOVE Alias!" "We HAVE to rent a villa in Italy next summer!" Because she feels so passionately about things, she also hurts as strongly when someone disappoints her. She doesn't get mad, she becomes enraged. She doesn't cry softly, she tells you you've ruined her life. Thus she is shy amongst strangers and very guarded with her emotions. You have to earn her trust. And as a result, so often she comes off as a total BITCH. But she's so much more complex than that. So loving and protective and soft in the middle.
We hurt each other like no other two people could. We know exactly which buttons to push, which wounds will hurt more. We criticize one another often (I more than she, a bad trait learned from my mother) and our emotional currency is guilt. She demands unrealistic things of me at times, and still I try to please her, even when there is no winning. I have failed her time and time over, but she remains ever-loyal, reeling from the sting of disappointment, loving me whole-heartedly nonetheless. The days and nights for gallavanting and playing games are greatly reduced, but we still can have a good laugh. She knows I have a family and responsibilities of my own and magically appears to my rescue just when I need her the most.
Like conjoined twins, I've often thought about cutting her off. Being separated. Being allowed to fully be an individual without the need for input or acceptance from the other. But to do so would surely be the death of me. She is so much a part of who I am. And it's as beautiful as it is difficult. If you're reading this (you're not because you're already bored to tears by now), I love you. "So many things I've never done, but oh, how I've been loved. And, if such things were to be, I'd live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so exponentially."
But I digress (am I the only one who thinks of Bill and Ted when I hear that phrase?). It's just that The Girls opened up my Pandora's Box. The vault of memories. The need to define a relationship so indecipherable. "I have never looked into my sister's eyes," the book begins. That line still gives me chills.The descriptions of Southwestern Ontario with farms, bungalows and an incestuously small community made me feel as though I too grew up there, though it couldn't be further from my suburban Scarborough upbringing of townhouse complexes and strip malls. I couldn't decide which twin I liked better, they both had such admirable qualities about them. Their lives were extraordinary. The fact that they could grow up fairly normally, despite their unique predicament, made the situations they got into that much more interesting.
The fact that Rose is an aspiring writer really spoke to me too. "How can I be a writer of I don't even have a degree?" Rose asks early on. I am always struggling with the fact that I never finished university. It's my life's one regret (well that and sleeping with this idiot) and so it struck a chord. A lot of Rose's difficulties with writing made me think that the author was experiencing these issues through the character. Writer's block for example.
Lori Lansens really gets into these characters, as though she was wearing them while she was writing. She has said that she was inspired by breastfeeding her own children. And there are definite similarities to being joined to a child and being joined to a twin. Especially a twin you have to carry on your hip like a child. But part of me truly wonders if Lori Lansens has a super close sibling like me. If this ever comes up in a Google Search, perhaps she could leave us a comment and let us know. Anyway, I think I shall have to read her first novel Rush Home Road now. I am a definite fan. If I saw her at say... Fresh on Queen West, I'd have to go up to her and give her props.
What did y'all think of the book? Perhaps your comments will ignite some more ideas from me. I will say that I finished the book on the way home from Paris and I sobbed the most embarrassing sobs ever in public.