- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

In “Double Stitch,” his fifth novel, Virigina writer John Rolfe Gardiner describes the childhood and adolescence of an orphaned pair of identical twins, Linda and Rebecca Carey. Linny and Becca are gorgeous, secretive and defiant — thereby holding a powerful fascination for everyone they meet.

The bond between the twins remains inscrutable to the end. In the course of exploring it, however, Mr. Gardiner vividly brings to life the cultural preoccupations of pre-World War II America: education reform, psychology (then emerging from Sigmund Freud’s shadow), women’s emancipation and, above all, racial identity.

It is 1926 when the ten-year-old Carey twins arrive at Drayton Orphanage, a snug village of Arts-and-Crafts style cottages set on an idyllic campus outside Philadelphia. If the facilities at Drayton are a far cry from the typical 19th-century orphanage, with its long rows of beds in drafty dormitories, so are the methods of Drayton’s director Eula Kieland. Eula is determined to provide her girls with a modern education and child-focused pastoral care. A dynamic, 30-something career woman, she is married to her work, and maintains a professional distance from her charges.

Until the Careys enter her life, that is, and “[draw] her in willy-nilly.” This is partly because Eula knows their most potentially dangerous secret — they have a grandmother who is black. When Eula admits the sisters to Drayton, she destroys documents that mention the grandmother’s existence.

Linny and Becca’s air of mingled confidence and indifference, not to mention their beautiful coppery skin and straw-blond hair, soon have an intoxicating effect on the whole Drayton community. The other girls adopt the twins’ baffling private language: “Walking out of her office Eula heard a child calling down the service road, ‘Groose goosh,’ and an answering ‘Grint lossy,’ yelled back from someone hidden in the branches of an apple tree.” (Soon after, the twins’ housemother finds their handwritten key to the nonce words, and discovers that “groose goosh” means, well, something scatalogical.)

Only Beverly Rice, the mathematics teacher, refuses to fall under the Careys’ spell. In fact, she becomes infuriated by their tricks — constantly switching clothes and names so they can’t be told apart — and leaves her post as a result. In her humorless way, perhaps, she realizes all too well what the other teachers and students struggle to grasp: that it is impossible to interact with the twins as separate people. Rather, Linny and Becca function as halves of one person, or more accurately, as each other’s doubles.

Who better to tease out the meaning of the Careys’ doubleness than Freud’s errant disciple, Otto Rank? In Mr. Gardiner’s narrative, Eula undergoes therapy (or “terapy,” as Rank calls it) with the famous analyst in Philadelphia. Their sessions often revolve around the absent twins, whose case Rank draws on to develop his theories about the double in myth and history. Eula, meanwhile, uses the twins’ lives vicariously to experience passions which she has long stifled.

Mr. Gardiner’s allusions to mythical doubles and the paradox of twinship become somewhat obvious as they multiply, and they aren’t supported by the too-thin characterization of Eula. Despite a brief appearance by Anais Nin herself (who was Rank’s real-life lover), this subplot founders.

Things pick up when the twins, aged 17, finally leave Drayton — separately. Becca wins a fellowship to study in China, while Linny makes her way to San Francisco, hoping to find work as a seamstress. Instead of leading a shared life, the twins now embark on very different, but mirrored, adventures. Released into the world without parents or friends to guide them, both entrust their fates to the wrong men, and both land in dangerous circumstances. Becca’s ordeal in China (where tensions between Nationalists and Communists are beginning to simmer) is especially harrowing; Mr. Gardiner’s talent as a storyteller is most evident in this section of the book.

The author’s unadorned prose can gracefully convey suspense, pathos and humor, sometimes all at once. When, for example, the twins are reunited with their long-lost grandmother, her unsightly “polka-dot” skin, shabby attire (consisting of an old bathrobe and bed sheets) and rude manners appall them:

“Becca, finally convinced the woman was her grandmother, came up to embrace her. Their cheeks were almost touching when Mrs. Carey snapped, ‘Look out, girl. Look out!’

“There was a horrid suction noise as a dental plate loosened and was pushed forward like the jaws of a protrusive fish, not something made by any ordinary dentist. She looked around at all of them, then sucked it in again and closed her mouth, clicking it back in place. It was something practiced and repellent.

“Becca backed away. Her sister took her arm. The two wiped tears from each other’s cheeks.”

“Double Stitch” is a gripping, deeply felt novel, evoking a time when modern notions of identity in America were slowly but inexorably taking shape.

DOUBLE STITCH: A NOVEL

By John Rolfe Gardiner

Counterpoint, $25, 318 pages


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