Picador. 2014. 320 pages.

Reviewed by Kristen Keckler

Add the twin mystique to a drug-fueled reality drama and you’ve got the recipe for double the intoxicating read in Christa Parravani’s memoir, Her, a sister book. Parravani offers a sinuous, startling, and intimate look at what it means to be share someone’s DNA by playing on the reader’s fantasies and stereotypes: confirming some—think Doublemint Gum commercials, Mary Kate and Ashley—while setting others straight. Here, we hear two distinct voices as Christa weaves italicized excerpts of her sister, Cara’s, journals both within and at the end of chapters. As Cara explains: “People think having a twin means never being lonely. Nothing is lonelier than being separated. Cut yourself in half. See how that feels and you will stop wanting a twin.” Ouch.

Cara died of a heroin overdose when they were twenty-eight, a few years after she was brutally raped in a park, two facts the memoirist, Christa, discloses upfront. Experiencing the death of one’s identical twin sounds Tarrantino-esque in its horror: like standing outside yourself and watching a firing squad tear you apart, bullet by bullet. And then, in the aftermath, “[i]t is impossible for a surviving twin to differentiate their living body from their twin’s; they become a breathing memorial to their lost half.” Christa even describes herself, and jokes to others, about having “dead face” when she not only appears, but feels, like she is the walking dead—this, my first nonfiction zombie moment, completely unmoored me. To complicate Christa’s identity crisis, and the effort of writing this book, at the time of her death, Cara was a freshly-minted MFA, working on her own memoir.

This double story-ing started well before Cara’s death, maybe as early as they were able to talk. But after Cara was raped, and began suffering from anxiety and depression, Christa made her sister the topic of her photography thesis—to spend time with her, coax her outdoors, and record their lives. Christa explains: “Cara refused to dress, so I made adjustments for the pictures. We wore identical, long black cloaks [….] I had a vision: identicals in the snow. I used the doppelgänger in the literary Gothic sense: landscapes to describe the psychological state of the characters in our novel.” And so the first chapters unfurl in the way good fiction builds character and motivation: with our protagonists growing up, being tossed from a pot simmering with an abusive father into the frying pan of an almost-as-bad military stepfather, and into fulfilling nascent careers, and marriages of their own—both wed young—to nice, decent guys.

Because she trades camera for pen, Christa’s prose takes on the sharp focus of a lens, zooming in to capture a detail—a black cashmere sweater, a white muslin scarf—and panning out to hint at the emotion, the milieu, the color. Cara rises from the page not merely as a monument, a still life, but as a dancer—she was always dancing. Strings of shots form the larger, motion picture mosaic of her life, and both their lives, together and apart. We see Cara’s red lipstick; the tendrils and flowers of her tattoos hiding the scars of her track marks. Cara’s gentleman callers, suitors who either met her head on or ran for cover; Cara’s her too-big red Converse sneakers. Cara at the wheel of the old Saab, rolling her eyes, making a funny observation; Cara’s claw-foot tub; Cara impatiently smoking a cigarette, and deftly scoring drugs off a sketchy man in an Italian train station.

Absorbed and enthralled, I chalked it up to “twin intuition” that Christa could narrate the details of Cara’s rape with such terrifying heart-wrenching precision—but I was wrong. When I looked back to the pages, I realized they were Cara’s words: a journal entry. Cara had written about herself in the 3rd person, which is what made me remember it as Christa’s voice. And in a way, the double take confirms a point the memoirist makes from the get-go: “It wasn’t uncommon for us to remember something that had happened to our twin. It can seem that I was the one who kissed Chad Taylor in the parking lot of our junior high school, his whale of a tongue bobbing back and forth in my mouth [….] Nothing could happen to one without it happening to the other.”

The tension in the book’s second half shifts to Christa, hell-bent on chasing her sister to the grave, the afterlife, all while trying to will, mold, and craft her back to life on the page. In the last act, Christa admits that from childhood through the first two years of college, they both wanted to be writers—Christa was the poet, and Cara the fiction writer. Christa only switched to photography her junior year because there was only room for one writer in the family, because they were, at that point, telling the same story: of being both self and other. It’s clear that Christa made a sacrifice in giving up something she loved, too, and maybe one of the subtexts is: what lives would have been told if they both had claimed the identity of writer at the same time?

Cara’s life is more compelling simply because she is the tragic hero—she died for her demons—plus, let’s face it, she was the more flamboyant sister, the more vulnerable, too: she played harder at life. There’s no last chance for reflection and redemption, though we divine regret, insight, and even hope in her journals, even at the apex of her addiction. Christa’s arc is more complex, convoluted, and drawn-out, and spurred by drug use, too, (pills), marked by an abandoned career, carnal affairs, and suicidal ideation, but mostly defined by grief, a self-imposed mandate to leave her sister’s body by starving her own, all while becoming her internally. Despite the fact she “lives to tell,” her personality was always more reserved, and so even her excesses spin order within the chaos. Christa muses, “[Cara] was right. I was always getting away with things she wouldn’t have.”  If so, Christa must wrestle not only with her loss, but with the process of putting herself back together, and becoming whole—and the whole question of what “whole” means to her, now and before. With that comes confronting her own choices, and that which cannot quite be put off or explained by a singular event—or by grief alone—is the more subtle of the themes, and the real challenge, and heart, of both this form and particular book.

Many contemporary memoirs leave off with a recent event or two, maybe to appease editors and book clubs and the gentle readers who want some down-home feel-good closure, and Her is no exception. I always prefer the more figurative leave-taking along the lines of Plath’s Bell Jar, where the writer simply shows a m
oment of altered perspective, a hint of an open door. But regardless, by the last page of Parravani’s book, you may feel like you’ve made a new friend, or in this case, two. Or maybe like you’ve just witnessed two roller coasters course along parallel tracks, with two vibrant, charming, imperfect sisters holding hands across the void between them—until they let go.

Christa Parravani is a writer and photographer. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally, and are represented by the Michael Foley Gallery in New York City and the Kopeikin gallery in Los Angeles. She has taught photography at Dartmouth College, Columbia University, and UMass, Amherst. She earned her MFA in Visual Art from Columbia University and her MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the writer Anthony Swofford, and their daughter.

Kristen Keckler’s poems, essays, and stories have appeared in Ecotone, The Iowa Review, Vestal Review, South Dakota Review, The Southeast Review, Prick of the Spindle, and other journals. She is a regular contributor to Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, a blog about reading and writing. She currently teaches English and creative writing at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York.