Thursday, September 17, 2009

Apples and Oranges

Publisher's Summary: To be sure, some brothers and sisters have relationships that are easy. But oh, some relationships can be fraught. Confusing, too: How can two people share the same parents and turn out to be entirely different?

Marie Brenner’s brother, Carl—yin to her yang, red state to her blue state—lived in Texas and in the apple country of Washington state, cultivating his orchards, polishing his guns, and (no doubt causing their grandfather Isidor to turn in his grave) attending church, while Marie, a world-class journalist and bestselling author, led a sophisticated life among the “New York libs” her brother loathed.

From their earliest days there was a gulf between them, well documented in testy letters and telling photos: “I am a textbook younger child . . . training as bête noir to my brother,” Brenner writes. “He’s barely six years old and has already developed the Carl Look. It’s the expression that the rabbit gets in Watership Down when it goes tharn, freezes in the light.”

After many years apart, a crisis pushed them back into each other’s lives. Marie temporarily abandoned her job at Vanity Fair magazine, her friends, and her husband to try to help her brother. Except that Carl fought her every step of the way. “I told you to stay away from the apple country,” he barked when she showed up. And, “Don’t tell anyone out here you’re from New York City. They’ll get the wrong idea.”

As usual, Marie—a reporter who has exposed big Tobacco scandals and Enron—irritated her brother and ignored his orders. She trained her formidable investigative skills on finding treatments to help her brother medically. And she dug into the past of the brilliant and contentious Brenner family, seeking in that complicated story a cure, too, for what ailed her relationship with Carl. If only they could find common ground, she reasoned, all would be well.

Brothers and sisters, Apples and Oranges. Marie Brenner has written an extraordinary memoir—one that is heartbreakingly honest, funny and true. It’s a book that even her brother could love.

Review: It started when Cain slew his brother Abel. Ever since these Biblical brothers duked it out, siblings throughout the ages have been at war with each other. Of course, not every sibling relationship is one of rivalry. There are countless siblings who are hand-in-glove simpatico. Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found by Marie Brenner, however, is not a symbiotic sibling love letter, but rather a détente treaty.

“Apples and oranges” is how their mother described them. On the surface, this assessment seems apt. Carl was a green tea sipping, gun-toting, right-wing, Texan apple farmer. Marie, in comparison, is a Starbucks quaffing, New Yorker who writes for Vanity Fair and other elite publications. As she states, “Our relationship is like a tangled fishing line. We are defined by each other and against each other, a red state and a blue state, yin and yang.” For decades this was the state of their relationship: deep love buried underneath a surface of anger, misunderstandings, and harsh words. However, when Carl is diagnosed with terminal cancer Marie rushes to his side to try and save him and their relationship.

Apples and Oranges is clearly written through Marie’s prism. This partly inevitable as she is the author and partly due to Carl’s meticulous eradication of his notes and letters. At certain points in the memoir I questioned Marie’s assessment of her brother. For example, when Carl sought “‘a hard-working individual’” to manage his apple farm, Marie characterized “the ad [as having] . . . the social skills of a blowtorch.” Some readers, however, might simply describe Carl’s ad as plain-spoken. Still Marie does not spare herself in this memoir and is candid about her own shortcomings.

The memoir is strongest when the relationship between Carl and Marie is front and center. The parallel story of the Brenner family history, while notable and worthy of its own tome, was often distracting. Similarly, the passages concerning the history of apples in America did not move the primary story forward, except to demonstrate Marie’s devotion to finding a common ground with her brother.

When the spotlight shines on Marie and Carl’s relationship, Apples and Oranges is a compelling read. Few memoirs are as authentic as the passage below:

I love you more than anyone . . . . You are my brother. We are Brenners. Team Carl.
There is no epiphany. There are no final words.
Don’t leave me, he says. Tears run down his cheeks. I am sorry for everything.

Apples and Oranges is a lot like real life: messy, complicated, and worth savoring every second.

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