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.
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.
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.”
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.