The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine


The story of this family is distinguished by the focus on two aspects of their lives:  the daughters are red-haired twins and words are very important to them, toys when they are children, central to their lives as adults. Each chapter begins with a definition from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. The twins are brilliant, have their own language, and begin communicating wittily while still in the crib. The day their father brings home a big beautiful dictionary, Webster’s Second, with its own stand, is a great day for them. “The biggest book imaginable,” as they saw it, was placed on its stand, open, “each side swelling like a wave in the ocean.”

On a personal note, though I am far from a dictionary scholar, when I saw a Webster’s Second at a neighborhood yard sale, I knew enough to ask Mr. Booklog if I should buy it. Though it had a prominent spot in our dining room for years, its role is sadly diminished these days. It’s just the right size and heft to raise a fan to the right height or raise a charger so that it can be plugged in.

The twin girls, so alike as children, personify the question of self. Laurel claims distinction from having been born first. Their mother worries whether they will be separate from each other. They do stay together through college and live together after graduation in a miserable walk-up while figuring out what to do next. They are both unhappy with their jobs, one as a receptionist at a Village Voice-like paper, the other as a kindergarten teacher in a private school. They decide to do that twin-thing and switch jobs and each of them thrives in the new environment.

The story of their lives is told with the occasional diversion into thoughts about language that are of interest to the author. The dictionary crops up again when their beloved father Arthur dies. Each of them claims the dictionary and they are estranged for decades. Somehow Schine reveals enough about their husbands, their mother, their aunt, and their cousin to make this a truly enjoyable book. As the end comes for various characters, I was quite sad. This is an impressive book:  I grew to love the characters and I enjoyed the diversions.

Cathleen Schine, The Grammarians, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019, 258 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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