Thought of the Week: Her (A Memoir)

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9780805096538_custom-23ea9dcbbd6c95e517d5b756b350ec37ea1b8833-s6-c30Well, I managed to achieve one of my New Year’s resolutions already, and read an entire book to myself. Perhaps if I continue to read this year, I can start a new blog series of reviews! How about that?

Like the best books, I downloaded a copy of Her: A Memoir at the behest of a good friend, Alexandra Corinth. You can read her review of the book here, if you want. She has her opinions of the book (rather glowing, all told), and I have mine. They may intersect.

Her: A Memoir is the story of twin sisters torn apart by violence, rape, drug abuse and eventually death (the blurb makes no secret of this, so it’s hardly a spoiler). This ought to have given me some clue as to what I was getting myself into reading this book, but I plunged ahead anyway. I also made the rather severe mistake of reading a number of reviews of the book before I’d finished myself, which means my own opinion may now be influenced.

Her: A Memoir is for the most part a gut-wrenching, harrowing, painful book to read. Christa Parravani doesn’t ease into the story, with the opening line:

“I used to be an identical twin.”

We are torn from there through the twins’ childhood, growing up in a broken home, learning to mistrust men, and within a few chapters we read of Cara’s rape in her own words (an interesting touch; interspersed throughout the book are Cara’s own writing, from journals and diary extracts). We learn of the addiction to prescription drugs, the move to heroin, and soon enough, Cara’s fatal overdose.

The first part of the book is haunting, certainly, but it was the second part, wherein Christa very nearly destroys her own life following her sister’s death, that I found particularly difficult to read. It’s here that we learn what it meant to Christa to be a twin, and what it meant to become ‘twinless’. We follow her through marital infidelity, more prescription drugs, mental institutions, and finally—finally—a form of salvation in her new husband and newborn child.

What did I think of Christa’s account of her life? It’s hard to say. I’ve read reviews, both raving and scathing. Some have likened her writing to poetry; I disagree. The more negative reviews tend to focus on the selfish, narcissistic and thoroughly inconsiderate nature of the two twins, mentioning that the art of memoir is to make the people likable. I also disagree. People are selfish, they do horrible things to each other, and to Christa’s credit she doesn’t try to rationalize the things she did; she simply paints the picture as she recalls it.

Personally, I think that Christa may have written this memoir too soon. She is still only in her thirties now, and though the book does end with the hope that, with her child, things will be better, there’s a lot of life still left for Christa to go through. I suspect there’s a lot of mental and emotional trouble that she will have to deal with as he continues to grow.

There are times in the book where Christa appears to speak for all twins in the context of her relationship with her own sister, but I think that between the lines there is an awareness that their relationship went beyond sibling love. Several times she writes as if she was Cara. Several times she writes of her doubts over her own individuality. Before and after her sister died, there are times when she seems to fail to recognize the difference between the two of them. It strikes me that this, in itself, is something worth seeking professional help for.

Ultimately, Her: A Memoir is the story of Christa’s struggle to survive, first with her twin and then without. All such struggles are deeply personal, and what one person weathers can kill another. I know people who have suffered far worse tragedies; there are, of course, people who kill themselves over far lesser ones. I don’t mean to belittle what Christa went through—I can hardly imagine her pain—but I would have liked to see a slightly greater distance from the events that are described. I would have liked to see what Christa learned. I would have liked to see a wider context. Perhaps if Christa had written this memoir five or ten years later, we would have seen that.

Stylistically, the writing could have been better. It jumps; it freezes. Short sentences move on from one another with sometimes very little flow. Dashes of poeticism glare out of context. Sometimes there are descriptions and details that fail to show their relevance. Does this detract from this book? Not really—I recognize many of these faults in my own writing. Writing is words in order, and the story is told; I wasn’t looking for poetic beauty on every page. But the occasional disjointedness does stand out.

I did not enjoy the book; I am nonetheless glad to have read it. I was tense, stressed and worried on every page. I felt deeply for Christa and Cara. I will probably be worried about them for some time to come. I hope that Christa will have a happy life with her new husband and daughter. I hope that she can retain the hope she finishes the book with. I hope she can find peace.

My; this is a terrible review. More a train of thought than anything. Sigh. If you’ve read Her: A Memoir, what did you think?

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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