Picture

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 hea