Two of Cathleen Schine’s slight comic novels have been filmed (The Love Letter and Rameau’s Niece.). Her frothy new novel, The Grammarians, also seems destined for Hollywood. As light as a helium balloon, it flies up, up, and away before falling to the earth, sans gas. The mood is reminiscent of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, only with identical twin grammarians instead of a disillusioned architect.
Twins in novels and films are freaky, and the twins in The Grammarians are no exception. Daphne and Laurel, named after Daphne, the daughter of a river god, and the laurel tree she turns into, speak their own baby language. Later, they delight in reading the dictionary. Their obsession with words frightens their uncle Don, a psychiatrist whom they tease. He keeps expecting (or hoping for) a rift between these cute wordy geniuses. When the quarrel finally happens, it is a desperate battle to the death over grammar. True, I’ve seen fiercer arguments, but grammar angst dominates the psyches of upper-class New Yorkers.
Don’t we all secretly wish we were Patty and Cathy, identical cousins in The Patty Duke Show? After graduation from Pomona, Schine’s twins live happily in a slum apartment in New York: Daphne is a receptionist for an alternative paper, Laurel an intimidated kindergarten teacher at a private school. After they pull a “switcheroo” for a day and do each other’s jobs, they fix each other’s errors. I expected them to trade jobs permanently.
As time goes by, the two separate, as Uncle Don once predicted. Daphne, the sarcastic sister, becomes a grammar columnist (think The Comma Queen at The New Yorker, or the late William Safire at The New York Times), while Laurel, the “nice” twin, stays home with her baby. But the good twin turns into the evil twin: desperately jealous of Daphne’s writing, she adopts a contrarian “descriptive” theory of grammar (spoken language is correct and literary rules are needless ) and writes poems and stories based on ungrammatical letters written during World War I. Daphne is furious because she thinks Laurel has stolen her identity. Daphne, however, remains the most famous of the two.
But Schine’s intellectual twins are caricatures, and they are not quite as smart as Schine thinks they are. They remember their high school Latin teacher’s reading “to them from Plutarch—the story of Romulus and Remus—in Latin.” That would be difficult, if not impossible, since Plutarch wrote in Greek: Schine was thinking of Livy. She also informs us that the girls laughed over the names Romulus and Remus: suckled by wolves, they were named for the Latin word, ruma, “teat”(actually, the standard form is rumis; the Latin word ruma usually means “throat, or gullet”). Actually, Livy writes of Rumana, the goddess of nursing mothers, because Romulus is born under ficus Rumanalis, the fig tree of Rumana. He does not use the word ruma, or the preferred form, rumis.
The Grammarians is a fluffy beach book, and should do well in the women’s fiction market, because there is no style to interfere with story. Schine writes like a copy-editor, with short sentences, simple vocabulary, and few adjectives and adverbs.
This is not to say you won’t enjoy it. Everybody likes to be entertained. I look forward to seeing the responses of my grammarian friends.