"The Grammarians"

Cathleen Schine has written a delightful novel about twin girls whose baby talk with each other consists of analyzing the words and phrases uttered by their parents as they coo over and discuss their babies with each other. The parents, Sally and Arthur, adore their redheaded twins but are somewhat intimidated by the seemingly nonsensical babbling coming from their babies’ mouths.

The twins, Laurel and Daphne, never lose their love of words. Their favorite childhood possession is “A Dictionary of the English Language,” by Samuel Johnson, which their father brings home one day. He builds what looks like an altar for the book, and the girls spend many hours reading the huge book from cover to cover.

Johnson’s book begins each chapter with a word and its definition. The words give a clue to the forthcoming events in each chapter. For example, one chapter that tells of the girls changing places for a day at their jobs begins: “To swop. v.a.[of uncertain derivation.] To change; to exchange for one thing for another. A low word.”

Like many twins, so I’ve heard, this bookish pair shares an unusual love for each other along with a marked sense of competition. Daphne is incredibly insulted when Laurel has plastic surgery on her nose. Laurel feels diminished when Daphne gains fame as a copy editor with her own column, published regularly in important New York newspapers. Daphne views Laurel’s career path as a poet unseemly. Poets, she believes, do not have a command of the English language.

A custody battle for the Johnson’s dictionary causes the greatest rift in Laurel and Daphne’s relationship. Only their dying mother can see the future for her girls as their lives play out in her mind during her last hours on earth.

As someone who refers often to books on editing (mainstays on my desk are Fowler’s “Modern English Usage” and the new “Dreyer’s English,” by Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief of Random House), I found every page, which usually included at least one play on words or phrases, to be highly entertaining. The author also writes with grace and insight about the themes of family, love and loss.