When you pick up a novel about conjoined twins, you might expect a curiosity, a glimpse of a life unlike any you can imagine. Lori Lansens’ novel The Girls, about 29-year-old Rose and Ruby Darlen, joined at the head, is instead an affecting portrait of the importance of connections, and the distance that exists within even the closest of bonds.
Rose is our primary narrator, the one who has decided to write her autobiography as she and her sister approach the milestone of being the longest-living such craniopagus twins (a word Rose throws around like it wouldn’t cause most people to run for their Webster’s). She’s the intellectual, sometimes pretentious one, the one who wanted to go to college but couldn’t without her sister’s agreement. It’s just one of many compromises each has had to make, but one that wasn’t quite as effortless as the daily compromises they face.
Rose is the writer, the reader, the thinker, where Ruby is the singer, the television watcher, the one labelled intellectually lazy, though she has filled their hometown museum with many of its artifacts, and knows more about the Neutral Indians of the area than anyone else around.
Ruby is also the pretty one. Though Ruby’s shortened body and clubbed feet mean that the more normally proportioned Rose must carry her and do the walking for both, Rose’s face is the one distorted by their conjoinment. But the girls are pragmatic and accepting of their differing gifts and challenges, having learned to value their differences and learn to accept themselves, in the same way they challenge others to accept them, simply by carrying out their lives as normally as possible.
Ruby writes the occasional chapter at Rose’s urging, since she feels her life story could never be complete without the voice of the sister who has been along for every breath of it. Lansen creates completely distinct voices for each woman, and occasionally uses the format to revisit scenes from each perspective, sometimes to highlight their nearly psychic bond, sometimes to highlight how differently they have interpreted the same events. The girls who are literally and figuratively as connected as two human beings can be don’t always know each other as well as they think they do.
Though infrequent, Ruby’s contributions add layers of pathos and humour to Rose’s unfolding narrative, and I found myself looking forward to the chapters that are printed in a different typeface, though they need no such flag to differentiate their unique voices. Ruby reveals secrets her sister had left unsaid, secrets that are both heartbreaking and fascinating.
While they have separate brains, separate thoughts, separate personalities, Rose and Ruby could never be separated because they share a vital vein – a metaphor that’s used to describe the relationship between the girls’ adoptive parents, too, the irrepressible Aunt Lovey and the inscrutable Uncle Stash, who have their own secrets. Populated with other characters whose lives intersect with the girls’, the book is about more than the uniqueness of the twins’ lives, it’s about the sometimes successful, sometimes futile search for connection in ordinary life.
The Girls is an absorbing story filled with humour and insight that kept me up long past my bedtime to read just one more chapter, then just one more, and if it weren’t for the sharp voices of Rose and Ruby Darlen that remained with me, I would have been even more bereft to reach the end.