Twins by Marcy Dermansky is an oddly compelling book. As indicated by the title, it is the story of identical twins. The story is told in alternating chapters by Sue, the compulsive, needy, vulgar, and often violent younger (by four minutes) twin, and the more conventional Chloe. Chloe, who is first to do everything, is the responsible one and seeks to have a normal life – or at least as normal a life as can be had by an identical twin with rich but distant and incompetent parents in suburban New Jersey.
The conflict between Sue and Chloe drives the story. Sue’s sees Chloe as the only necessary ingredient in her world. She despises, her parents (often for good reason), school, friends, and anything that might come between her and Chloe. There is a dark edge to Sue and consequently she seems to dominate the novel.
Chloe is caught between her love for her sister and her desire to be “normal.” She really just wants to fit in; to have friends and do well in school. But as her parents seem incapable of handling their duties she is the de facto guardian of Sue. The more Sue seeks to manipulate Chloe, the more Chloe longs for space between her and her twin.
The emotional conflict builds on the clash between the external pressures of life as a teenager (worthless parents, school, making friends, coming to grips with sex, etc.) and the internal pressures of being a identical twins. The story follows how each twin deals with these pressures as they grow older. The reactions of Sue and Chloe to changing circumstances twist and turn as the story progresses. I won’t give away all the details but this includes shoplifting, bulimia, lesbian sex, parents “divorcing” their kids, the pressure of high school sports, and more.
It is hard to get a handle on my feelings about this novel. On the one hand, many of the details are fantastic and somewhat thin. The ridiculous irresponsibility of the parents stretches the imagination at times. As does the ending (Sue’s part in particular). It as if Dermansky pushes the envelope but them pulls everything back before it gets to dark or tragic. Perhaps, if everything were to be taken to their logical conclusions the novel would be too depressing. I also can’t make up mind about Chloe’s turn to basketball. It seems alternately odd and confusing or creative and inspired.
On the other hand, I did find Twins compelling. Dermansky redeems the weak plot elements and convenient ending by creating the voices of Sue and Chloe. Sue in particular is an edgy portrait of a teenager whose emotions are out of control. Her unique position as identical twin combined with her complete lack of supervision or stability creates a monster. Sue’s voice seems real and scary. Chloe is the counterpart to that, she seeks to impose stability and normality on her life when her parents won’t give it to her. But she finds she doesn’t have the tools to be successful all by herself. She desperately seeks a space away from her sister, but when she finally gets it she finds it a lonely place. Chloe’s perspective again seems all too real and depressing.
As I said above, Twins is an oddly compelling book. It is weird and dark, and sometimes implausible, but the voices of Chloe and Sue are charged and fascinating. Putting complaints aside, Dermansky has created an original and intriguing first novel.