The Girls by Lori Lansens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Can you really know another person, even if you spend every waking moment with her? Ruby and Rose are conjoined twins narrating the story of their remarkable shared lives.
They are on the cusp of their 30th birthday, which will make them the oldest surviving pair of conjoined twins in history (though in reality that honor goes to Lori and George Schappell, born in 1961). Rose and Ruby are joined at the head and everyone in their small Canadian town refers to them simply as "the Girls." Rose, an aspiring writer and poet, begins recording their history: from the tornado that touched down on the day of their birth to the love story of their parents, Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, to their present independent lives.
Aunt Lovey, their adopted mother, is the queen of love that is clear-sighted and tough. She has been married to Uncle Stash, a Slovakian immigrant, for most of her life. Rose narrates their love story and it is clear that there is a kind of conjoinment that is spiritual rather than physical.
Ruby, who is far more interested in archaeology and television than in literature, tells the Girls's story from her own perspective. Lansens is skilled at making their separate voices distinctive and convincing; she not only captures the difficulties of being conjoined, but also emotions that are not exclusive to sisters or twins.
Ruby and Rose have never met eyes but can feel the other's blush or the movement of a frown, and frequently misunderstand each other; it is this tension that Lansens uses to unforgettable effect. Ruby, herself not a writer, tends to blurt out the stunning details of their shared lives that Rose leaves out (or is perhaps working up to reveal in a more literary fashion). It's a virtuoso performance of narrative and voice.
The daily awkwardness of their condition is thoughtfully explored - for example, how do you plan a surprise party for someone who is with you literally every waking moment? What happens when one sister is sick and the other is not? The Girls are frequently embarrassed to be treated as a single person instead of two separate women. They are normal sisters with secrets and different opinions and tastes - some of my favorite moments are when you see the mixed results of one sister's occasional attempts at deceiving the other.
The events near the end of the book seem a bit unconvincing, but ultimately it's the characters and their separate but parallel journeys - as well as the secondhand love story of their parents - that make this novel so readable.
For your next read, character-driven stories abound, but Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is a gorgeously written tale of sisters and family by a modern literary master. One of my other all-time favorite books about family love is Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. In her afterward to The Girls, Lansens provides a list of books for further reading, including Millie-Christine: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made by Joanne Martell, a historical account of two conjoined women born into slavery in the 1850s American South.
Cover note: I don't usually quibble about bad cover art, but in this case the jacket image of The Girls is so misleading that I have to say something. It's not only inaccurate, but also gives readers absolutely no indication of the content of the story and is guaranteed to lose your interest. Trust me, this is one book you can't judge by the cover.
"I've never set eyes on my sister, except in mirror images and photographs, but I know Ruby's gestures as my own, through the movement of her muscles and bone. I love my sister as I love myself. I hate her that way too." - 5
"We're not weird. We just have a weird condition." - 114
"I started to hum, and Aunt Lovey knew that I was gone, not physically of course, but that I had walked through a door and closed it behind me and could not be reached for comment. (Ruby has the same capacity to make a swift mental exit, and I've read about the phenomenon in other conjoined twins. Some people call it 'wandering.' It's a state of consciousness that is not quite here and not quite there, deeper than a daydream, not awake but not asleep. ...)" - 155