Sarah Crichton Books
Reviewed by Melissa
Brothers and sisters. Siblings, and all the baggage that comes along with them for many of us. Well, at least, for Marie Brenner. She and her brother, Carl, have had a tumultuous relationship their whole lives, so when Carl drops the bomb that he has cancer and is dying -- his type of cancer only has an 11% survival rate -- Marie feels a desperate need to not only connect with her older brother, but understand him. This book is the story of that journey.
Brenner writes that their mother rightly labeled her and Carl "apples and oranges". She is a reporter -- high-profile for Vanity Fair, having written both an expose on Enron as well as the piece on the tobacco industry that The Insider was based on. He is a former corporate lawyer turned apple grower. He owns orchards in the Cascades, selling his apple and pear varieties all around the world. She is liberal; he a staunch conservative. He lives in Texas and Washington State; she is a tried-and-true New Yorker (in spite of a San Antonio upbringing), with ex-pat leanings. She embraces their Jewish-Mexican heritage; he tries to forget the past, and converts to Christianity. This book is a study in contrasts, one woman's journey to figure out not only her brother -- and all that entails -- but her family, her past, and how that all relates to her life.
Brenner's style is an interesting mix of biting commentary and reflective introspection. My favorite quote comes from early on:
I am a reporter. That means I am a magpie of facts, an issue of sound bites,
a repeater of opinions, an arbiter of everyone else's self-importance, ego
blurts, and grandiosity, a sponge recycling reports from the front.
I thought that was a spot-on observation. But that was before she really got going in the book. I found Brenner to be ruthless in her observations, sparing no one: her family, her work companions, her current and former husbands. In addition to the biting reflections and commentary, the book is disjointed and hard to follow. She bounces around from present to past and back again, making it difficult to follow the narrative. It's frustrating because it is difficult to get a sense of not only her relationship with her brother, but a sense of who she and her brother are. It's also a very posh book -- people flying all over the world at a moment's notice, not to mention her grandfather's and aunt's association with Frieda Kahlo -- which grated on me as a reader. Though, after a while -- once she gets to the Cascades to help her brother through his illness -- the narrative settles down, and becomes not only easier to follow, but more interesting.
There's also the overhanging issue of her unresolved anger and frustrations, not only with her brother, but with her family as a whole. I have to give her credit for reaching out to her brother, but the book is threaded with so much tension that it was difficult for me to sympathize with either her, or her brother, even in his dire condition. I was often angry and annoyed while reading it, and when I finished, I felt bad that I was too bothered by the characters to have more sympathy for either of them; certainly her brother's death didn't affect me as much as I think Brenner wanted it to. Perhaps the brusqueness was Carl and Marie's coping mechanism, dealing with his impending death, but it made for uncomfortable reading.
Brenner is meticulous in her details; I learned more than I thought I ever would about growing apples, her family, and sibling rivalry. But, unfortunately, the story of her and her brother got in the way of actually enjoying what I could have learned. And for that, I am truly sorry.