The Grammarians – ARC review

Author: Cathleen Schine
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Genre: literary fiction, contemporary fiction
My rating: 4/5 stars

The Grammarians is a tale of sisterhood and a love letter to the English language. Cute, quirky, and highly readable, this book was a good deal of fun, especially for someone as word-obsessed as I am.

The blurb on this book is rather misleading, so I’m providing my own here. As children, Daphne and Laurel—red-haired identical twins—speak to each other in a pidgin language of their own creation, much to the bafflement of those around them. Their greatest delight comes from poring over an old dictionary their father brought home, hunting for interesting words and carrying them over into everyday life, while engaging in all sorts of shenanigans and thriving on the excitement of daily life. The Grammarians chronicles the lives of these two girls as they grow into adulthood, start careers, get married, and raise families, drifting further apart with time, but never losing their love for all things linguistic…or their innate connection with each other.

As one might expect, where the book really excels is its use of language. There is a lot of wry humor, which is quite fitting for a tale of two sisters who thrive on words and wordplay. In a nod to the girls’ obsession with odd words and the contents of their old dictionary, each chapter heading is—what else?—a dictionary entry for a word that relates to the chapter. Often, the words are highly obscure, archaic, or printed alongside a less-common definition for them. Always, they are fascinating, and my personal vocabulary has definitely grown by at least a few words.

The Grammarians also succeeds wildly in its portrayal of the complexities of sisterhood, individuality, and feminism.Daphne and Laurel frequently butt heads over the importance of career, the importance of family, the importance of where you live and what you do and who you do it with. When one is dissatisfied with her appearance, the other takes offense, knowing that she looks exactly the same, and therefore she, too, is “ugly” to her sister. The two clash over issues of what you “should” do versus what you want to do, differences that ultimately escalate into shaping the girls’ opinions of language as a whole—one becomes a prescriptivist; the other, a descriptivist. Although they love each other fiercely, they are often at odds with one another, sometimes to such an extreme that their friends and family fear they will never reunite—and both girls’ thoughts and opinions on these fronts are exquisitely rendered, an all-too-real depiction of siblings trying to define themselves apart from each other.

There are a few quibbles I have, of course. For one, there are the frequent shifts in narration throughout the book—always in third person, but sometimes filtered through the mind of either Laurel or Daphne, sometimes through one of their husbands, sometimes through their cousin Brian, and sometimes through their mother. Getting this broader view of the sisters’ lives is nice, especially seeing it through the eyes of the men they marry, but sometimes it comes across as odd; Brian, in particular, is a great character, but his role in the twins’ lives is minimal, and usually he just gets a quick observation of them here or there. I was also disappointed at a fairly large moment that ended up being told from their mother’s perspective, which irked me, because the story isn’t really about her. There are also shifts in tense, from past to present to future and back again. Though a bit jarring, most of these make sense; my only complaint is that the end of the book takes place as one long prediction, written in future tense. I won’t say what that prediction includes, but it is fairly long and detailed, and it wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked.

As a whole, this is a quick, fun read for the logophile in your life. Despite its occasional flaws in pacing and narrative choices, it paints a vivid portrait of two memorable women. It will make you laugh, and it will make you feel smarter (or perhaps dumber, when they start casually tossing out complaints about very specific grammatical issues that you don’t really think about, but now will never forget…). 

Thanks to the publisher for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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