Review: ‘Twins’ by Marcy Dermansky

What if instead of the smart and practical Elizabeth Wakefield girl reporter, there was a Chloe, a hardworking, soon-to-be popular teenager stunted by her enabling? And instead of that rowdy, boy-crazy Jessica Wakefield there was a Sue with the tendencies of a low-level sociopath, crippling co-dependency and a lack of self control?

And what if, when you were introduced to them, instead of giddy hopefulness about getting into the elite high school sorority, these twins were worried about the sterilization practices of a tattoo artist at the local strip mall?

This is where Marcy Dermansky has taken her pretty blonde protagonists in her wonderfully awful novel Twins. It’s like she took Sweet Valley High, plopped it in New Jersey and broke Lila Fowler’s nose with a tennis ball.

Sue strong arms her twin into getting a tattoo that says “Sue,” while she plans to get one that says “Chloe.” This is a 13th birthday marker, funded by money Sue has been stealing from their father’s wallet. She wants a permanent record of their togetherness. Chloe is reluctant, but it is nothing that some waterworks from Sue — the drama queen, prone to tantrums — can’t fix.

The story opens at a point in their relationship when Chloe is eager to shed her sister weight and forge her own identity. She’s snagged the interest of the popular crowd with her fluffy princess hair and lip gloss. At 13, she is already dreaming about going off to college, a different college than her sister.

Sue is jealous about sharing Chloe with this popular posse. And frankly, the posse isn’t really feeling her, either. She’s a little bit violent and a lot bit unstable. She breaks the ringleader’s nose with a tennis ball. She’s always waving her middle finger. She is also anti-authority and anti soap and dabbling in the art of bulimia.

Their parents, lawyers who work in New York City, are rarely home and throw hundred dollar bills at problems. Sometimes they pull out legal pads and tape recorders before not solving anything. Their older brother Daniel is a social misfit who also has his eye on the front door. He’s a Sue loyalist, though, although she fails to see that he has her back.

The twins go through a lifetime of changes in a four-year span. They are together, they aren’t together. They’re grudgingly together, Sue holding tight like a jealous boyfriend. Then Chloe finds a way out of this obsessive relationship by discovering she’s got a talent beyond conjugating verbs to get ahead in her French class.

Sue hitches her star to a sexy stranger’s pig-tailed art wagon and finds a new path — and hairstyle — of her own.

The story is told in alternating voices as the twins race to find new and specially tailored routes to rock bottom.

Dermansky likes her characters flawed. She likes to roll them in muck. And like I said after lapping up her other novel, Bad Marie, she likes to rip the wings off of them. And so far she is 2-for-2 in writing the sort of stories that make one cackle with evil glee.

This review was originally posted on June 6, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Bad Marie’ by Marcy Dermansky

I don’t know Marcy Dermansky, but I have to imagine the novelist behind the ridiculously delicious joy-ride Bad Marie spent a lot of time bent over a keyboard cackling as she pulled the wings off her title character.

Fiction just got fun again, friends. This is the kind of book you sprint through, only to realize everyone else is doing it wrong. Writers are taking themselves — not to mention their characters — far too seriously.

Lets start where Dermansky starts: With a glass of whiskey and a bathtub, which she says in the novel’s version of a director’s cut is the image that inspired the book.

Marie just got out prison after a six-year stint for abetting a criminal. She didn’t actually hate her hard time, which included a monotonous job in laundry, three squares a day, and hours in her bunk re-reading the novel Virginie at Sea, a one-hit wonder by the French author Benoit Doniel. Marie appeals to Ellen, a well-to-do friend from childhood with whom she has a very complicated give-take-take-take relationship, and ends up nannying for her 2-year-old daughter Caitlin. But! Ellen’s husband, it turns out, is Benoit Doniel! When the couple comes home and finds Marie drunk, passed out in the bathtub with their daughter — and Benoit seems appropriately distracted by her big wet breasts — Marie decides to give him the humpty-hump treatment. She commits to this extra-hard the next day when Ellen takes her out to dinner to tell her she’s fired.

Marie’s final days on the job are all very sexy and whirlwind. Baguettes, Ellen’s red kimono, and trips to Central Park. Coffee from a bowl, Benoit murmuring in French-lish. Caitlin nonplussed by the image of her father and her nanny bumping faces. Instead of spending a final day together wading in tear-stained nudity, they pack up some organic string cheese and jet off for France together with Caitlin.

The honeymoon period doesn’t last a day.

From here, Dermansky takes this hussy without a conscience and beats the shit out of her in a handful of new, surprising, and yes, improbable ways. I’d like nothing better than to sit in a room with four other people who have read this book and flush out why Marie emerges from this novel more likable than when we started, despite the ever-growing resume of bad behavior.

As far as I can tell, this novel has been under-read. Released in soft cover, reviewed by the likes of Elle, but not by major book media. Quite a bit of blog chatter from women who preface their critiques with information about receiving a review copy of the book.

I can’t imagine the NYT Book Review could review this, then look at themselves in the mirror in the morning. Pan it, and they are self-righteous dicks. Like it too hard, and they would risk being taken seriously in the future. They would have to address the implausibility, and show concern about how a recently-released convict had such speedy access to a passport. They would suck the ample life out of the novel by thinking about it too hard, which is precisely what no one should do while reading it. Which is fine.

Bad Marie makes for a fantastic cult classic. Something passed along between friends and raved about in dark booths of Chinese Restaurants. Our little secret.

This review was originally posted on Minnesota Reads on November 7, 2010.