One of my favourite things to do when I’m book shopping is wander around through the shelves until I find a completely random book that I know nothing about but that “speaks to me” in one way or another. And yes, I know, I’m a super weirdo. And yes, sometimes I end up with a book where goth fairies live in the New York Subway system and go on quests for drag queen’s shoes (true story). But other times I end up with The Girls.
I read this books lots of years ago, but it has stuck with me. It’s not an “oh yeah, I liked the book!” book, it’s a “carry this back and forth from college three years running, won’t lend it out because it’s too precious, place of honour on my bookshelf” book. It’s very, very good and I have been saving it especially for my month of atypical protagonists, because as far as not-your-average-female-characters go, the pair that narrates this lovely book are pretty high on the unique scale.
The Girls is by Lori Lansens, and it is a Canadian book set in the fictional Canadian town of Leaford which, based on other geographical locations mentions with frequency throughout the novel, is somewhere in the Chatham/Windsor/London Ontario area.
It’s the story of Rose and Ruby Darlens, who are twins. Specifically, they are conjoined twins, connected at the head, just above Rose’ right ear. The way she describes it, if you place your hand on your head, just above your right ear and spread out your fingers, that is the area by which she and her sister are joined. They share over 100 veins and a complicated series of skull bones and cerebral tissue. Ruby, the small, physically weaker twin, lives her life literally on Rose’s hip. Rose, despite being able to walk around, and despite her over all physical dominance, suffers from partial blindness and other complications caused by the way her skull has grown to accommodate Ruby. Though the girls share one whole side of their head, their minds are entirely their own and they are distinct, unique personalities whose perspectives of the world are wholly individual.
Rose, among other things, is a talented writer. As she and her sister approach their thirtieth birthday, various mitigating circumstances (none of which I’ll reveal because spoilers) compel her to begin writing the story of her life. Of course, it becomes immediately apparent that she can’t write her biography without Ruby’s input, so she enlists her sister’s aid. The result is that, we, the readers, get the book in two wildly disparate forms – sharp, literary Rose who is trying to write a very serious work of literature, and goofy, flippant Ruby who has never written creatively a day in her life, and who puts in her two cents like she’s writing a diary. It’s a brilliant technique from a literary perspective because what you get is Rose, attempting to write a proper book, with a build-up of suspense, and a plot structure and form, and Ruby just stream-of-consciousness blurting stuff out with no rhyme nor reason. So Rose will allude to some terrible thing in her chapter, and then in Ruby’s chapter, she’ll mention exactly what the terrible thing is in passing but won’t give any details so you have to suffer until Rose decides to finally give you her big reveal. It is at turns hilarious, shocking and terribly sad and it turns what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward story into something as unexpected and fascinating as the girls themselves.
Rose and Ruby are two of my favourite female characters ever. They would be wonderful in any form – normal identical twins, a pair of sisters, or even just very close girlfriends. The fact that they are conjoined is not the most interesting thing about them, not hardly, which I love. I think it speaks to the idea that no one is defined by their disabilities. You are the sum of all your parts, not just the strange or different ones. And that’s sort of the point of the book; it’s Rose and Ruby saying, hey we aren’t just the conjoined twins down the street, we are interesting, funny, smart individuals who have all the same struggles and hopes and fear as everyone else. The keen sense of voice that Lansens displays in writing this book means that both young women’s version of events hold the same weight. Rose, poetic and word-loving is not more or less valid a character than her pop culture and reincarnation obsessed sister.
There’s a lot of other stuff this book touches on. There’s the idea of family, of love and loss and the difference between losing someone quickly or slowly over time. There’s a lot of commentary on what it means to be “other” in society, particularly as women when so much worth is placed on how you look, and of course a heavy dose of how on earth you can grow in your own unique way when you have another living person attached to you permanently.
In short, it’s the story of ordinary life told by two women whose circumstances are extraordinary, and I am so glad that I randomly picked up this bright pink Canadian book with the non-descript cover and brought it home, because in doing so I got one of my most favourite stories. SO probably there’s a metaphor in there about taking a chance on things that don’t look like what you’d expect to enjoy, and probably that’s a metaphor that Rose would like and Ruby would roll her eyes at. And also probably you should all go check out this book so that we can love it together.