Cathleen Schine's captivating new novel, The Grammarians, centers on a pair of identical twins named Daphne and Laurel, after the Greek myth of transformation, and their obsessive love of language. It's also about their family, and what happens to them as they grow older and some die. In short, it's about everything and nothing, written with the tender precision and clarity of a painting by Vermeer, had that 17th-century Dutchman portrayed scenes of middle-class Jewish life in mid- to late 20th-century New York ... Schine...knows a thing or two about words herself. She moves the plot forward from decade to decade, evoking entire neighborhoods, social and economic strata, and fads and fashions, with just a few strokes. The point of view shifts seamlessly...And even though Schine herself is not a twin, she writes convincingly about twinship ...[a] wry and elegant novel.
... brilliantly funny ... Schine is...a novelist of sustained light wit and great formal economy. Her scenes in this new novel are especially lean and staccato, everything counting, the dialogue concise and convincingly absurd. She knows the importance, for any good comedy, of characters who are consciously funny as well as those who are unknowingly so ... At its snappiest, the talk in her novels is like a very well written sitcom, shaped in short scenes, with little narrative padding. The risk entailed in so brisk and hilarious a performance is that the characters may seem more the properties of an enormous predetermined joke than plausible human beings ... Schine explores the paradoxes of twinhood deftly ... Schine...runs 'ten years, twenty, maybe, thirty' into the future, seeing her daughters grow old. The effect is beautiful, wistful, wry ... It also inevitably gives us a tantalizing sense of a good hundred pages or more of the story that Schine could have given us if she’d cared to. Readers may be unsure if this last-minute dash is a narrative coup or a gracefully handled cop-out. Either way, it is hard not to feel that the real life of the book lies not in its coda but in its sparkling exposition and development.
... marvelous ... Schine finds the line between comedy and tragedy that she treads so skillfully in such novels as The Three Weissmans of Westport and They May Not Mean to But They Do (though as always she leans more on the side of comedy). Like her twins, she revels in language, its idiosyncrasies and our mangling of it ... you don’t need to be a writer or editor to fall under Schine’s spell.
... tackles tight kinship head-on and cleverly demonstrates how Laurel and Daphne embody the conflicting definitions of 'twin' from Webster's cited in the novel's epigram: As a noun, it means a couple or a pair, while as a verb, it can mean to part, sever or sunder ... While not as moving as Schine's last novel, The Grammarians is filled with delightful zingers ... This tale of twins who 'elbow each other out of the way in the giant womb of the world' is smart, buoyant and bookish — in the best sense of the word.
... delightful ... Like the best of those books on language, Schine’s novels — this is her 11th — are often as witty as they are erudite ... Schine takes her readers on deep philosophical dives but resurfaces with craft and humor; her tone is amused and amusing ... How do two people who start out, essentially, as clones, end up believing themselves to be so different? The pleasure of this novel lies in the answers Schine provides through her storytelling, the accretion of moments of chance and perspective that make the various resolutions seem almost inevitable ... The novel’s other luxury is the permission Schine gives herself to revel in language itself ... For better or worse, the moving parts of The Grammarians don’t snap together with the same satisfying click that they do in some of Schine’s earlier novels. The supporting characters feel more peripheral, although that may be formally appropriate for a novel that tries to capture the insularity of identical twins ... What holds The Grammarians aloft, ultimately, is its riveting love story — not the tale of the twins or their respective marriages but of their deep bond with language.
Schine lays all this out with the deliberateness of someone setting a table with the good china. Her 11th novel, which follows note-perfect outings that include The Three Weissmanns of Westport and Fin & Lady, burbles with her customary witty and exacting observations ... Because The Grammarians, which has the tempo of a character study, hasn't much by way of plot, it may take several chapters before the reader shares the author's conspicuous enchantment with her two protagonists, but it will happen. Neither Wolfe sister may feel that she will ever achieve her dream of landing on exactly the right words, but Schine pretty much finds them all.
... alls to mind the likes of Nora Ephron or Joan Didion. It’s not every verbal stunt pilot that can bring a mid-novel excursus about the differences between Webster’s Second and Third editions to a safe landing ... As for the sisters, Schine renders a note--perfect portrait of how shared DNA can foster a ferocious internal rivalry, while it renders the pair nearly impervious to attack from the outside world.
Laurel and Daphne, identical-twin wordsmiths with fiery red hair, are this novel’s protagonists, but language is its heart ... central as words may be to this witty tale of sibling rivalry, Schine also suggests that there are some things they just can’t quite capture.
At the heart of this comic novel about supersmart, language-obsessed sisters are profound questions about how close two human beings can be ... As we've come to expect in 10 previous novels, Schine's warmth and wisdom about how families work and don't work are as reliable as her wry humor, and we often get both together ... This impossibly endearing and clever novel sets off a depth charge of emotion and meaning.
Schine’s sparkling latest has a prickly underside that keeps it anchored to the daily stresses of family life ... Both a fizzy exploration of the difficulties of separating from one’s closest ally and a quirky meditation on the limits of language for understanding the world, the novel moves slowly through the first couple decades of the twins’ lives and then more briskly through the rest. Though the work is deliberately paced, the affectionate tension between the twins provides enough conflict for a lifetime. This coolly observant novel should please those who share the twins’ obsession with slippery language.