Back Bay Books, 2005
Reconfigurations of the Self
Review by Shannon K. Winston
Lori Lansen’s The Girls: A Novel is a subtle and carefully crafted investigation of what it means to be human and to engage with others in the world. It asks important questions such as: what does it mean to be “normal” and human? Where do the borders of one self-end and where does that of another begin? How do we relate to others, our bodies, and space?
The novel deftly addresses these difficult questions by narrating the story of Rose and Ruby, conjoined twins who narrate their story (stories) of their lives together who are abandoned by their biological mother and adopted by a hospital nurse. The girls are two fiercely different individuals who inhabit the same body. Rose begins the narrative by stating: “I have never looked into my sister’s eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon” (Lansens, The Girls, 3). These lines establish three of the central themes of the novel: the gaze (and unique perspectives), companionship, and life experiences, for this story is told by two girls who conduct both unusual and quite ordinary lives: they are defined as much by the experiences they have not had as by those they have.
One of the greatest strengths of the novel is the range of experiences and emotions it addresses. The sisters often describe their feelings towards each other as continuations of their feelings towards themselves; the line between self and other thus gets blurred in interesting and complex ways. The narrative describes what it is to feel someone’s presence—as the sisters do—without every seeing the other. Girls: The Novel thus proposes an alternate way of being in the world, in which there are alternative ways of experiencing the self and others. Rose explains: “I’ve never set eyes on my sister, except in mirror images and photographs, but I know Ruby’s gestures as my own, through the movement of her muscle and bone” (5). Here, as elsewhere in the novel, Lansens probes the deeply familiar and the foreign and shows that the two terms are not always binary opposites; in fact, they often coexist. In short, this book is an understated attempt to challenge so-called “normal” lived experiences and to propose, instead, that we reinvestigate our own position in the world.
Finally, and interestingly, The Girls is also a meditation on the writing process itself and what it means to create a narrative. The story unfolds as we read it and each girl shares her side of the story. Each chapter, therefore, presents a shift in point of view. It posits the difficulty and advantages of a double narrative just as it describes the many joys and hardships of a doubled existence.