Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Girls - Lori Lansens

"I have never looked into my sister's eyes.  I have never bathed alone.  I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon.  I've never used an airplane bathroom.  Or worn a hat.  Or been kissed like that.  I've never driven a car. Or slept through the night.  Never a private talk.  Or solo walk.  I've never climbed a tree.  Or faded into a crowd.  So many things I've never done, but oh, how I've been loved. And, if such things were to be, I'd live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so exponentially."
Those words open Lori Lansens' The Girls.  Her work stands out because of its unique subject matter.  The protagonists of the story are a pair of craniopagus twins (two girls, conjoined on the side of their heads).  Rose and Ruby live in a small Canadian town, not too far from Detroit.  At the time of their birth, which occurred on the same day as a devastating tornado, the middle-aged nurse who delivered them and stayed with them through their first weeks in the hospital became so attached that she convinced her immigrant husband they should adopt the girls.  And so, the twins end up in the care of Uncle Stash and Aunt Lovey.

The majority of the story is told from Rose's viewpoint.  Lansens' offers the premise that Rose wants to write a memoir of sorts.  Hence, the book.  Once in a while, Ruby pops in for a chapter of her own, but she does not have the interest in or skill for writing that Rose does.  Because of this perspective, it takes a while to truly catch on to the details of their situation.  From what I understood, the girls are conjoined at the side of their heads, but otherwise have entirely independent bodies.  Ruby has copious medical complications, including severe gastrointestinal problems and clubfeet.  Because of their positioning and Ruby's physical limitations, Rose carries Ruby on her hip everywhere they go.  Ruby also suffers from extreme motion sickness and a car ride is often accompanied by severe nausea and its results.  

While these details are interesting on their own, albeit in a somewhat incongruous way, you quickly realize their physical condition is not the centerpiece of the book.  Because Aunt Lovey refuses to allow the girls to use their disability as a crutch, they are propelled out into the world.  At the time of the book, they are 29.  They have graduated from high school, each hold a job at the local library, live on their own, have traveled to Uncle Stash's homeland of Slovakia, and even given birth to a child.  Yep, that's the shocking one.  At 17, the girls had one sexual experience with a neighbor boy, which resulted in Rose's pregnancy.  After a difficult birth, they girls never even held their daughter, but rather gave her up for adoption.  It elements of the story such as the pregnancy and the surrender child which add real depth to the story.

The pregnancy story line, in fact, comes as a shock.  Rose tells the story of their encounter with the neighbor, but it is Ruby who reveals the child.  Rose deliberately leaves out immense plot points for the majority of the book, leaving Ruby to unknowingly reveal the shocking events.  There is no better example of this than the girls' physical deterioration.  Rose writes approximately the first third of the book.  Her early chapters are very straight forward, reflecting on their early years and giving the impression that the story will be exactly what the reader expects.  When Ruby jumps in with her first chapter, however, she casually reveals that Rose has a been diagnosed with an inoperable brain aneurysm and the girls have less than six months to live. She later speaks about the pregnancy with the same casual attitude, assuming that her sister has already discussed the biggest moments of their lives.

Overall, this book ended up being much more than I expected.  It was not life changing and will never be a best seller, but it is unique and an interesting story.  I will admit that the "hook" of conjoined twins pulled me in.  It was the twins themselves, though, and the way Lansens wrote their characters which kept me reading. And I think Lansens realizes this dynamic.  The opening quote of the book has shock appeal and draws the reader in.  Yet, Rose's final words demonstrate the dichotomy created between their status as a physical oddity and their reality as two independent people who live together in a way few of us can imagine.  The story is ultimately about the girls as people, and that's what makes the book worth reading.
"I returned to the first chapter of this book, which I haven't read since my last crisis of confidence.  I might alter it now to read: I have never looked into my sister's eyes, but I've seen inside her soul.  I have never worn a hat, but I have been kissed like that. I have never raised both arms at once, but the moon beguiled me still.  Sleep is for suckers.  I like the bus just fine.  And though I've never climbed a tree, I've scaled a mountain, and that's a hell of a thing.  One more change I might make is to say that I wouldn't live a thousand lives, but a million to infinity, to live the life I've lived as me."

Pages: 368
Date Completed: March 19, 2013

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