The Twin Tragedies: “Her” by Christa Parravani

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Christa Parravani, Her.

I don’t know how to write what I’m going to write without sounding heartless. Perhaps I am heartless. Let me say in my defense, though, that generally speaking I love memoirs and novels about people struggling with mental illness, heartbreak, addiction and so forth. For example, I LOVE Marr Karr’s memoirs The Liars Club and Lit. (I haven’t yet read the third one, Cherry). They are about her highly dysfunctional childhood and her young adulthood in which she struggled with alcoholism. I worship Karr’s writing ability. I also love Sylvia Plath’s work, especially the poetry she wrote when she was on a downward spiral to suicide. I also adore Anne Lamott’s memoir writing about her troubled years of self-destruction.

So I thought I would be moved by Parravani’s Her, a memoir about growing up with an identical twin sister who eventually killed herself. I wanted to be moved and even haunted, the way other readers said they were. The truth, though, is that I was so bored reading the memoir that I didn’t even finish it. I read about 150 pages and that was only because my book club was discussing it. The reality is that I just didn’t care what happened to the narrator.

Yes, that sounds harsh when I write it down. To be clear, what happened to the two sisters, especially, Cara, was horrifying. I’m not giving anything away when I say that Cara was the victim of an especially brutal rape and was never the same afterwards. She became addicted to heroin and eventually died of an overdose. Whether or not this particular overdose was a suicide wasn’t clear to me, but in any case Cara was headed in the direction of suicide. This is of course terrible and I do feel badly for her and for Christa who reeled from the aftermath of her twin’s untimely death.

My critique is not of the flesh-and-blood sisters in real life, but of the quality of writing of the memoir. Parravani made it very clear that the sisters, especially Cara, were unusually close, even for twins. (Cara actually came along on Christa’s honeymoon, uninvited!). She also made it clear that both were messed up, not surprisingly, given their childhood. But frankly, that’s all I could really gather about the sisters. I didn’t get a sense of either of them as full-fledged people. When Parravani was not writing about her pain, she focused almost exclusively on mundane details of her life (such as the clothes she wore, the way her house was decorated, etc.)

To be honest, the parts that I DID gather about them made me find them not particularly likeable. The author seemed narcissistic, self-involved, and without any sense of self-awareness. The main thing I learned about Cara, the dead sister (apart from her self-destructive behavior), was that she was beautiful and used her beauty to screw with men (literally and figuratively). All I could really gather about Christa is that she found herself and Cara to be the only people in the world that really seemed to matter. Maybe that’s what rubbed me the wrong way. If you don’t care about anybody but each other, why should we readers care about you?

Mary Karr and Anne Lamott write about serious problems, their own and their family members. What makes them so much better as memoirists, in my humble opinion, is that they are brutally clear-eyed about their own shortcomings. They are also funny as hell. Christa Parravani does not share either of these qualities. I know she was in pain when she wrote this, and I do empathize with that.  However, reading her memoir makes me realize that readers need more to “grab on to” than just a stranger’s pain if we are going to find it worthwhile to spend so much time with their thoughts.

Based on the reviews I’ve read, I believe I am a minority in my reaction to this book. Please feel free to respond with me in the comments if you feel differently than I do.

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