Marcy Dermansky’s Twins

Posted: August 14, 2008 in alternating narratives, binary opposites, children's and young adult literature, Marcy Dermansky

Dermansky, Marcy.  Twins.  2005.  New York: Harper 2006.

I guess I’m not exactly the best audience for books focussed on the identity problems of self-obsessed, whiny, spoiled, upper-middle-class princesses, because mostly I just found this depressingly self-obsessed and whiny, and I doubt if there was more than a moment or two in the entire book where I felt any sympathy for either of the two main characters.; sure they had big troubles, but so much whiny self-obsession!  Between the two of them, they seem to involve themselves in just about every cliché of dangerous teen life, from bulimia to shoplifting to drugs to sex both straight and gay, and all because nobody ever loves them quite completely enough or gives them the complete and absolute attention or adoration they so clearly and unquestionably are sure they deserve.  And they have maybe the worst parents ever–not only are they uninvolved in their daughters’ lives and unaware of their often serious problems, they actually move out of the house and leave one of the girls behind (the other has run away already at that point, not that anyone much seems to care).  All of this is a kind of satisfyingly awful wish-fulfillment, showing through exaggeration (although not presented as such–it clearly claims just to be the real way things really are) how completely bad things really are for self-absorbed teens who rightfully feel misunderstood and put upon and ignored by their equally self-absorbed parents.  What most scares me is that there might well be teen readers who’ll identify with all this–that we’ve come to a moment in culture so completely self-absorbed that this will just seem like the way life always is and can’t not be.

The alternating narrative works here in terms of showing how the two girls move back and forth from connection to detachment to connection, from togetherness, to isolation to togetherness, etc.  The odd thing, though, is that they both are in total agreement about which one is the good one, etc., and about what their relationship means–so that the book doesn’t really take advantage most of the time of its differing points of view.  We are told they are different and even opposite in outlook by both of them–and they agree about the ways in which they are different.  As the plot moves, on, they do inevitably have misunderstandings of what each other is doing or thinking–ones that a reader can pick up and think about–but that’s a surprisingly small element of the book.  It’s as if the author imagined a book about different twins forced to deal with their apparent sameness but couldn’t actually imagine their difference–or at least not establish it by giving them clearly different ideas or thought patterns about themselves and each other.

In theory, though, the book is about escaping sameness.  To begin with, the girls are held together in a sort of false community–the slightly younger one wants nothing more than her connection to her twin, and jealously prevents the twin from wearing different clothes or hairstyles or having any kind of relationship with anyone else–and the other one is too cowardly or cowed by her fear of upsetting her sister to insist.  So there’s an insistence on their being identical and, I suppose paradoxically, alone together in the isolation of their twinhood.  As the book moves on, though, they move apart in various ways and for a whole series of differing reasons (they seem to go through enough melodrama for twelve or fourteen sets of twins, not just one).  So one becomes popular and the other doesn’t, one shaves her head and the other doesn’t, one becomes bulimic and the other doesn’t.   And then they have to sort out what kinds of being different are positive, and what kinds are just self-destructive.  The trajectory of the book is a fairly obvious one: after escaping the obsession with being together and the same, they must find out who they really are and become healthy whole individuals before they can come together in what the book implies will be a good relationship at the end.  The move from claustrophobic sameness to a connection based on acceptance of difference–but each with her own circle of friends, etc., and her own interests and hairstyle (hairstyle does seem to be a huge deal here).

All this seems very North American in its insistence on the importance of being yourself and unique and an individual, and it’s equal insistence that this is exceedingly hard to do because after all, everyone want to be recognizably like everybody else, normal, the same.  Nevertheless, it follows more or less the same trajectory as Jacqueline Wilson’s Double Act, also about a set of twins, but British ones this time, who must figure out how to separate from each other and be the different people they really are–so maybe it’s a first-world, capitalist, contemporary ideology rather than North-american specifically (see also Avi and Rachel Vail’s Never Mind for another set of alternately focalizing twins with similar individuality problems).  In Wilson’s book, incidentally, readers know the twins are actually different from reading their differing narratives–and as I said earlier, these two claim that to be true but share so much in the way of mutual understandings of each other that it’s not all that convincing.

One other thing: there a kind of binary-oppositional game going on here.  The twins are, to begin with, good/bad, beautiful/not so hot (according to both of them and some school friends, even though they are identical), good student/bad student, social/antisocial, etc., etc., but then as the plot moves on they seem to change roles, so that the one with friends becomes isolated and the isolated one find hereself in a sort of family with her brother and his girlfriend.  Also, both are involved at differing times with members of a family, the father a famous basketball star and the daughter a would-be fashion model who befriends the popular twin but ends up in a relationship with the other one, and at various times one or the other of the twins occupies their brother’s former room and isolates herself there.  So, despite their move to difference, there’s a lot of identity confusion and crossing back and forth of the qualities and even situations that make them theoretically different.

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Comments
  1. […] lifestyle, It’s has an OC or The Hills vibe, and is in that way astonishing similar to another recent YA book I’ve discussed here earlier, Marci Dermansky’s Twins (not California, but equally selfish princess-y) –but with […]

  2. […] book is strangely similar to Marci Dermansky’s Twins:  two sisters, (close in age but not in this case actually twins) are in many ways opposites: […]

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