It’s Like This…

What Are You Like? by Anne Enright
What Are You Like? by Anne Enright

1961 brought something amazing into the lives of every young girl who has ever attended a slumber party. The advent of games such as “Truth or Dare” and “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board”? A guide to prank calling? No, sorry, what I’m talking about here is Disney’s smash hit The Parent Trap (in Technicolor), starring Hayley Mills as twins separated at birth: snooty Sharon McKendrick from Boston and freewheeling Californian Susan Evers. The underlying romantic story, which essentially declares “opposites attract,” brings the girls’ long-estranged mother and father back together in an all-too-perfect fashion. The film, marketed as a comedy full of high jinks, was nominated for two Academy Awards, netted $25,000 at the box office, and provided a springboard for three television sequels, a theatrical re-release in 1968, a popular remake more than 35 years later, and the remarkable ability for “Let’s Get Together, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” to get stuck in every viewer’s head. This is compelling stuff, and I have seen this movie at least ten times, mostly at sleepovers.

Susan and Sharon: Together at Last! © Disney
Susan and Sharon: Together at Last! ©Disney

So The Parent Trap was the first thing that popped in my head after I read a quick synopsis of What Are You Like? by Anne Enright. The book shifts between Dublin, New York, and London as it explores the emotions of Maria and Marie (rechristened Rose after her adoption) as the women slowly understand this “other part” of themselves. I certainly didn’t think that the novel would read anything like the sugary-sweet film—I’ve read other books by Enright, including her 2007 Man Booker-winner The Gathering, and I’ve also had the great pleasure of hearing her speak at an event for volunteers at Fighting Words, a creative writing center in Dublin. Her writing is precise, yet esoteric; overly familial, yet completely foreign. But the notion of twins separated at birth? I just don’t have any cultural touchstones besides Sharon and Susan. Forgive me, Ms. Enright.

A simile about smiles...
A simile about smiles…

If you’ve had a good teacher or two, some things—like times tables—just become a permanent part of your knowledge base. Therefore, any reader, writer, or SAT-taker will recognize a simile: a comparison between two unlike objects using “like” or “as.” And talented authors just have a way with using unconnected events and items to illustrate a character or plot point. Here are a few that I’ve pulled up:

“Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.” — The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

“She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.” — The Adventure of the Three Gables, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm.” — East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

At the beginning of the book, Enright’s similes and metaphors come easily to the reader. A “same, but different” theme emerges, and readers can nod their heads in total understanding of this genetic fascination, relayed through well-written, but “easy” language. For instance, when Maria, raised in Ireland by her father and stepmother after her biological mother dies in childbirth, steps into the house of neighbor Mrs. Quinlan, “…she realises it is the same as their house, except it is the wrong colour. Except it is the wrong smell. Except it is the wrong way around! The kitchen goes to the left instead of the right and when you try to go into the dining room there is a massive blank wall.” Similarly, before her father Berts remarries, baby Maria spends each day of the week with a different family member or neighbor. Enright describes how the child spends time exploring on the carpet of each house and meticulously illustrates the different intricacies of each pattern. Again, “same, but different.”

But when Maria stumbles across an old picture of someone who looks remarkably like her, Enright notes that “…there was the fact that she looked different, even though she was the same. It was hard to put your finger on it. She had the right mouth, but the wrong voice might come out of it. She had the same eyes, but they had seen other things. Her hair was the same, but the parting was on the other side…[Maria] had always felt like someone else. She had always felt like the wrong girl.” And this is the point where the reader beings to internalize the fact that “twins separated at birth” is, well, kind of a big deal. It is the point where Enright begins to unleash her trademark vivid and seemingly cryptic language and imagery. And it is also the point where, to me, the book becomes a work about simile and comparisons—and the difficult parameters language erects when we try to describe grand, large-scale emotion.

Remember, the book is titled What Are You Like?, not Who Are You? or I Can’t Believe I Have a Twin! It’s as if the young women are asking each other, “How do I put you in context of what I know? What experiences can I dial up to make me understand this?” This is a phenomenal experience, so Enright brings out phenomenal language.

The best review that I have ever read on Amazon is actually for What Are You Like? It is simple and funny and to-the-point: “The author’s concept of this odd book had to come from the seam of her eye where the mist and the rocks blow together like the Brussels sprouts of yesterday’s backyard tire swing. If you liked this review, you’ll love the book.” (For what it’s worth, I loved the book.)

And that is Anne Enright for you. However, this book is not a trippy traipse through Wonderland. Rather, it is thick with plot and ably explores the profound relationships between family members and the surrounding community when characters feel like “something is missing” and subsequently muster the courage to figure out how they “fit in.” The only aspect of her work that could even remotely be called esoteric or cryptic is her attention to how her characters feel and how they attempt to understand these feelings.

Maria, for instance, experiences things abstractly and acutely well before she has any concrete inkling of a long-lost twin. Here is how the author describes a time where a young Maria visits the family farm of her deceased mother: “Maria had never seen rain before. She had never seen rain that started a mile away, a high smudge under the clouds. It looked different to everything – like the bit of a drawing you tried to rub out with your finger. Soon I will be inside that rain, she thought. I will be there…Maria buzzed around the barn, and itched where the hay caught her. If you had asked what she was then, she would not have been able to tell you. Out in the rain she would have been wet, she would have been a girl from Dublin caught in the rain, but here in the barn she was anything at all.” This is an Irish girl; obviously, Maria has “seen rain before.” Yet Enright means something different, for in Maria’s mind, this rain dictates a new emotion that she’s feeling—one that she might not ever be able to put into words, but one that she will always associate with this particular rainstorm and visiting with biological relatives whom she doesn’t know at all.

Similarly, the author has this to say about Maria’s stepmother, Evelyn, who has resigned herself to a generally benign life, one where she and her husband inch toward indifference, with her stepdaughter and biological children following suit: “That night Evelyn dreamt of sperm and the smell maddened her. It lingered in the morning and made her ashamed. It was her fifty-third birthday. Time to throw things out, she thought, and started with a plastic bag full of shoes that had taken the shape of her feet. Ghost steps, and all the wanderings she had never made, knotted at the top and left out for the bin men, waltzing in the quiet, in the rain.”

How to make emotional sense of this?
How to make emotional sense of this?

This is how Anne Enright uses simile. She may not always use “like” or “as”—and the reader may be a little befuddled at times as to what exactly her imagery means—but the wide swath of emotion that she gives her characters is indicative of her ability to use their experiences to inform their lives.

So, in a way, the plot of What Are You Like? isn’t about the mechanics of how these two girls come to find each other. Instead, Enright takes a ripped-from-the-headlines and popular plot and takes it to its basest level in order to give us a potential clue as to what something as profound as “twins separated at birth” is really like.



Shake It: A Break from Regularly Scheduled Programming

Last night, my husband and I and our two kids huddled around a laptop watching old videos. One of my favorites? A front-toothless version of my now-10-year-old daughter singing “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Summertime, and the livin’ is easy… School has been out for a week, we’ve had some uncharacteristic 70-degree days, and the 10:30 pm light is making bedtime later and later. Summer: It always shakes things up a bit. So, I will too. (Shake things up, that is. Much like how Debbie Gibson sang “Shake Your Love” in 1987. Oh, to have a video of me singing that.)

My friend Rebekah, who started blogging in response to her travels to Rwanda, recently posted her recommended summer reads. Not only does she carve out time to blog, she is a mother of three and co-owns a lifestyle boutique in New York—all the while running to acting auditions when she can. Judging from her list, I think she reads a lot more non-fiction than I do: Shake it up, Amy!

So here’s something a little different while I work on writing about Anne Enright’s What Are You Like? In the spirit of Rebekah’s post, I’m offering up my own recommended summer reads. Perhaps between the two lists, you’ll be inspired to reach for a title you normally wouldn’t.

Brother, I'm Dying, by Edwidge Danticat
Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat

Here is the memoir of the author of several acclaimed novels and short-story collections, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, The Dew Breaker, and 2013’s Claire of the Sea Light. Brother chronicles Danticat’s early life in Haiti, her parents’ departure to America to establish a better life for their family, and her reunion with them when she is twelve. In light of the immigration debate in America, this book, which also illuminates the questionable detainment of Danticat’s uncle (her “second father”), is an appropriate—and important—read, no matter your views.

All Souls, by Michael Patrick MacDonald
All Souls, by Michael Patrick MacDonald

I was working in Boston and living in Cambridge when this book came out in 1999; it created quite a buzz. MacDonald’s memoir provides an intense look into Boston’s Southie (at one point an Irish-American stronghold with the highest concentration of white poverty in America) and the passionate loyalties that bind the community together, as well as the organized crime that destroys many of its residents. Not only do readers get to know the author’s mother (the accordion-wielding “Ma”) as well as his ten siblings, they’ll see how politics—including Boston’s infamous busing crisis of the 70s—charged a community. This book provides a tragic look into how the many tentacles of crime and violence can literally diminish a family. (MacDonald also wrote Easter Rising, a memoir of breaking the “Southie mold” and his subsequent travels to the “motherland”: Ireland.)

Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger
Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger

I try to read this book once a year. It was recommended to me by my friend Ashley, and once I finally picked it up, I understood that this was a special kind of book. Although the reader may want to hurry and see how it all ends, one should read prudently and slowly in order to savor the language and imagery that Enger carefully serves up. The beauty of Peace Like a River is that the book’s simple line, “Make of it what you will,” is also, once the tone of the story is set, one of its best.

Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen
Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen

In all of her books that I’ve read, Jen successfully and humorously dives into that murky area between culture of origin and adopted culture—and where the two intersect. Mona follows teenaged Chinese-American Mona Chang, who moves with her family to suburban New York and subsequently decides to convert to Judaism. In addition to her writing talent, I’m drawn to Jen’s thoughtful and articulate responses to the more broad-brushed concepts of life and art: Check out her website and read/watch a sampling of her interviews to see what I mean. And although I haven’t read it yet, I’d recommend her book, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, based on lectures she delivered at Harvard. (It’s on my list!)

The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein
The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein

I read through the late Wasserstein’s entire body of work after taking a class called “Household Dramas” in college. (Can you guess what Sophocles drama we started with?) Twenty-five years after Heidi won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the pontifications about what it means to be a woman and mother in the “modern world” still resonate. Her characters all seem to fall in the middle of the traditional-revolutionary spectrum. I don’t mean that they are wishy-washy, and I don’t mean that there aren’t those who fall heavily on one side: the driven career woman or the woman who chooses motherhood over all. Yet they are nuanced women, women whom I think most females can identify with one way or another. Which, if you take a look at drama (especially televised), is an awfully hard feat to accomplish. Wasserstein’s collection of essays, Bachelor Girls, as well her posthumous biography, Wendy and the Lost Boys by Julie Salamon (which, again, I have not read, but was recommended by a commenter on Rebekah’s blog) will round out a Wasserstein collection.

For me, the perfect summer read is a book that challenges me without forcing me to lug around an annotated commentary. Save Ulysses for winter. (But be sure to finish it before Bloomsday: June 16.) However, if you’re looking for something much lighter than the above recommendations, may I suggest the following?