Thursday, 22 May 2008

Apples and Oranges
This is writer Marie Brenner's intimate memoir about her brother and their incredibly complex and fraught relationship. I find myself overwhelmed with admiration for Ms Brenner, not only for accomplishing the sheer task of getting this book down, laden as it is with generations of family history and scientific and psychological research, but also for the intense struggle she documents as she attempted to forge some kind of common ground, an essential connection, with her very strange sibling.
As the title suggests, Ms Brenner and her brother, Carl, are not at all alike. Chalk and cheese, in fact.
She's an investigative journalist, highly intelligent, happy and successful. He is similarly smart and successful, but also anal and controlling, a cold fish who sends his sister a tray of fruit from his orchards every year with a note that says: 'I picked them myself. Don't give them away.'
A right-wing lawyer from Texas who has in his mid-life moved into growing apples in a big way in Washington State, he has always kept his younger, more lefty, liberal-intellectual sister at more than arm's length. It seems he has no love for her, and his attitude towards her and her smart, New York life is obnoxious and condescending. And really weird. 'You always have to show off and tell us what you know, Carl said.'
Anyone of us in the same boat, faced with such a dour character and such direct put-downs, would be forgiven for turning our back on him. Yet she doesn't cast him off as a bad egg or a black sheep, but instead, when she discovers he has cancer, she puts her life on hold and moves across the country to go into bat for him, hoping to find a way to save his life, and also to spend their last few months together and fix what ails them both.

It must be said that she probably does this as much for herself: in many ways her opinion of herself seems coloured a little by this blighted relationship:
'Why can't I just be easy with my brother, the way I am with my friends? That we are not close seems a badge of shame, a personal failure, a mark of my inabilities, bossy nature, and tendency to exaggerate. Carl thinks of me as the human flaw.
'I'm going to give you a quiz.
'This is how Carl starts many of our conversations.
'I wish I were kidding.'

Since she is a journalist as well as an author, she digs deep to get to the bottom of what ails them.
'A research study on siblings breaks down the percentages: 52 percent of all brothers and sisters have a close relationship, 12 percent have no relationship, and 21 percent are something called "borderline." I am a borderline, defined by and against my brother, locked into some ancient and immutable feud. There is a moat around our conversations. Why? Why did we spend years locked in struggle with each other? I had to believe there was a chance that some of the answers could be found in the past, in letters and facts and research, in new interpretations of patterns held up to the light. I was operating with a strtict sense of Freudian principles, that the past could yield insights and applicable truths, if only one understood the sexual rivalries, the aggression, the scant affection. I could spin out a sound bite that might make you think I knew what I was talking about, had read the experts on nurture and nature, birth order, peer influence, mirror neurons, attachment theory, DNA.'

The story of these two is a good enough by itself, but what makes this such an extraordinary work is all the other ... stuff .. that she packs into it: information about siblings in modern psychology, about her complicated family, about apples and the entire US apple industry, and about medical science.
It's also touching, a deeply moving book. I loved it.

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