The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine
Published by Sarah Crichton Books
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Genres: Coming-of-age, Fiction, Literary
The Grammarians is the story of identical twins Laurel and Daphne. They’re pretty, with deep auburn hair, and precocious—speaking in full sentences and reading by the time they’re five. They were born seventeen minutes apart, with Laurel being older. Daphne’s feelings about this is one of the first indicators of their unusual bond
“You were alive for seventeen minutes without me. I was never alive without you.”
At the same time, it is a vexation to her, because Laurel does everything first throughout their lives. Not just first, but often best. It seems ingrained in their cells and it isn’t until they are adults that their dynamic shifts, tilting their whole world upside-down.
Language is the nexus around which The Grammarians dips, spins, and dazzles. It begins with the girls and a secret language that follows them from their earliest years onward. Their father fosters it by bringing home an enormous dictionary when they’re still little. Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language is their favorite reading material and they fill notebooks of words they love. If they’re not reading, they’re talking. And talking. And talking. Often about words and how magical they are.
Despite the twinned world they inhabit, after college the girls begin to split apart. They live together in NYC, but only Laurel finds work thanks to learning to type. Daphne refused to learn, severely limiting in her job options. She finally lands a job as a receptionist at a tiny alternative newspaper. This professional pulling apart is a small tear, but then Laurel falls in love, marries, and has a baby, something Daphne doesn’t want.
On separate paths, the sisters still live lives immersed in language. Daphne becomes a well-known columnist, writing about the abuses perpetrated on the English language by the world around her. Laurel stumbles to find her footing, but an antique grammar book leads her to further reading from the past and slowly her belief in the vital importance of precise speech fades. She falls in the love with meaning behind the structure. She starts writing poems and with that the seam between the sisters disintegrates. Daphne is a prescriptivist (someone focused solely on the rules of grammar) and Laurel is a descriptivist. They cannot reconcile themselves to what each sees as the betrayal of all they once believed.
Not someone intrigued by grammar, words, and how to use both? Don’t despair. If you’ve been reading my reviews long enough you know I no longer remember most of the rules of grammar and punctuation. I’m sure my English professors would be horrified. The point is, The Grammarians is a story, not a grammar primer. Daphne and Laurel are two flawed humans with extraordinary minds and the weaknesses to match. Schine surrounds them with a complement of odd, endearing, and funny characters who bring needed perspective. She carries them through the novel with the sisters, as touchpoints to the world outside themselves.
Daphne and Laurel’s obsession with language combined with their primal connection and interactions as sisters makes for marvelous reading. They are masters of words and wordplay and The Grammarians is infused with their bon mots, puns, their linguistic creations. It’s clear that Schine herself must feel the same kind of love or she would not have been able to so perfectly capture their spirit in all its creepy charm. Much like properly used words, The Grammarians is both charming and stinging and left me quietly happy.