Anne Enright’s third novel follows twin Irish girls whose mother dies of brain cancer shortly after their birth. One, Maria, is raised in Dublin by her father, Berts. The other, Rose, is adopted by an English family. The two grow up unaware of each other’s existence, until the very end of the novel, when they are 22. That is when Rose decides to look for her natural mother and finds, instead, not only that her mother has died but that she has a twin sister.
The book is structured in short chapters alternating the three characters’ points of view. It opens in Berts’s voice, right after his wife has died, and this first chapter is the most impressive in the novel. The writing is daring, energetic, almost talky, but about something terrible, something almost unimaginable. Enright seems here to make it as hard as possible for herself, and then to succeed in every sentence. Not only is the subject of the chapter a pregnant woman, and not only is she dying, but her mind is breaking down and she approaches even her housework in strange ways. Enright makes this complicated situation completely understandable and, somehow, also makes the dying woman’s non-sensical approach to her tasks seem almost logical. During his wife’s illness, Berts thinks:
She was quiet. She cooked the wrong things. She lay down and pressed her cheek to the floor, her eye skimming the carpet all the way to the skirting board. At first he thought it was the baby making her mad but, as she bloomed, she shrank and the brightness in her eye became too hard. The real signs were those to do with size. She put the cup into the milk, you could say, and not the other way around, she put the bag into the clothes and not the clothes into the bag, she poured the water on the floor and squeezed it back into the bucket.
After the introduction, we jump forward to a time when Maria and Rose have grown up, and we hear from them in alternating chapters, interspersed with short chapters from Berts. The novel’s structure reflects how the characters feel–alienated, not only from themselves but from each other. While a shared narration might foster a collaborative story-telling effect, in which each character’s chapter adds to what someone else just said, in this novel’s chapters the characters talk mainly about themselves. When they do touch on their common ground–the mother who left them–it’s a very personal, private recollection, just between the two of them. So instead of completing a picture of their mother these competing views of her only seem to make her more complex and mysterious, and illustrate the distance of these characters from one another.
These are people whose conception of who they are–what they are "like," as the title wonders–is inadequate. Rose, who is adopted, does not know that her mother has died, let alone that she has a twin sister. Rose imagines all the possible places her mother could be: "On the tube, overdressed and sleek … in the supermarket aisle, ducking away from her." Rose, who knows nothing about her natural family, does not understand why she acts in the ways she does, what traits she has inherited from her parents. Trying to ascertain why she picks at her food, she surmises:
She picked at her food because she was English, because she was Irish. She picked at her food because she was a Capricorn, because when she was a baby she had choked on a spoonful of pureed shrimp, because she had a famine gene, or a food-picking gene, or because when she was young her mother told her to sit up straight and not wolf her food. She picked at her food because she was middle class.
She does not know why she does the things she does. She has nothing to compare herself to, and can only guess what she is like.
Berts knows all the facts about himself (he knew his wife, and he knows that he has twin daughters), but still does not seem to understand the causes and effects of the events that make up his life. Things happen to Berts, and often not understanding them, his responses are inadequate. Here are his first thoughts about his wife’s cancer: "At the end of the fifth month they took her in and Berts found that he missed her around the house. The carpets seemed emptied of pattern, the cushions made no sense." Berts does not feel this way only about catastrophic events; the confusion he feels when he thinks about his dying wife extends into other parts of his life–for example, into his relationship to his new wife, Evelyn. "He needed her," he thinks one day, "even if he could not remember what she looked like, from time to time." About Evelyn’s upcoming birthday, he thinks: "The year before it was chocolates, but chocolates were wrong, apparently–he didn’t even notice she was fat."
The book is uneven. Enright is very good on Berts. He is in extraordinary circumstances and another writer might try to get him to respond in a similarly grand way (take both daughters to raise). But Enright, to her credit and great comic effect, has him fumble and react merely pragmatically (take the one). One longs to read more about this man, whose life is always more complicated than his workaday thoughts seem able to bear. But we get only a few pages at a time before the twins talk about their boyfriends.
The chapters from the daughters’ points of view are less interesting, mainly because they lack the complication issuing from Berts’ warped sensibility. We hear details about the girls jobs, about where they live and who they are dating. Maria moves to New York for a while, then works in a clothing store in Dublin. Rose goes to college and has sex a lot, "practicing and practicing, and still not getting used to it." Some of the descriptions in the girls’ chapters are funny: "Rose was very interested in psychology these days. On Thursdays she slept with a man who was married to a psychotherapist and said it was driving him mad. It was driving Rose mad too. She wanted to go into therapy for a start, if possible with his wife."
But often they are dramatic and cute. Maria says of a boyfriend’s eyes: "She saw the bulge of his iris move from side to side, as though checking some place out before he could dream there. And the bulge started to dance."
The literary sensibility that wrote that passage has also written the book’s ending, which has the twins finally meeting each other and, one is lead to believe, becoming whole again, the way they were before their mother died, when they knew who they were, what they were "like."
Enright seems here to be saying that what was missing in the twins’ unanchored lives all along was not a larger sense of purpose, but merely a reunion of sisters. And this conclusion, reminiscent of a mediocre self-help book, makes the novel, in the end–despite its many good descriptions of characters who are recognizable to us in their bewilderment about their place in the world–smaller and more precious than it had to be.