It’s been reported that 52% of brothers and sisters have a close rapport, while 12% have none. Another 21% have a “borderline” relationship. The latter is how New York journalist Marie Brenner defined her relationship with her older brother, Carl. Their relationship had always been strained, and now it was crucial that she figure out why—because he was dying of cancer.
The two were polar opposites. He wanted to serve in Vietnam, but he failed the eye test. She listened to folk singer/peace activist Joan Baez. He was organized, while she had papers strewn all over her office. She couldn’t understand why Carl gave up his Ivy League education and his life as a Texas attorney to move to Washington to grow apples. The worst part, however, was that she just couldn’t stand to be around him.
When Carl’s illness worsened, Marie took a leave of absence from her family, friends, and job at Vanity Fair to help him with his apple farm. Though he’d had “serious” girlfriends, Carl admitted that he really needed Marie, his sister. However, they constantly squabbled. Whenever they seemed to make progress, something would make him snap, and they’d be back at square one. She felt like a personal failure.
Marie was determined to find a logical explanation for their tense relationship. Since her family was one of letter writers, she researched boxes of documents, hoping to find answers in the past. Her father didn’t get along with his older sister, Anita—maybe that could have something to do with her relationship with Carl.
Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found is Marie Brenner’s captivating memoir, describing the struggle to make sense of her family dynamics. She consistently flashes back to various stages of her family history, but this doesn’t slow down the momentum one bit; instead, it adds richness to the story. For instance, she tells the story of her Jewish grandfather, who immigrated in 1890 to San Antonio, Texas, then moved to Mexico before moving back again during the Mexican revolution. I also found the story of Marie’s rebellious Aunt Anita just as alluring as she did. She also explores how Jews in 1960s San Antonio sought to keep their cultural identity while maintaining a secular life. And, finally, she tries to relate all of this to her relationship with Carl.
Even if you don’t have an older sibling, you’ll probably find that elements of Marie’s story feel hauntingly familiar. Could it be those unwritten family rules and traits that are difficult to break as an adult? Maybe it’s a tense relationship with another family member, enclosed by a solid bond that can’t be broken. I don’t know if this was Ms. Brenner’s intention, but you may get an eerie feeling that someone has taken a glimpse into your own past and family relationships. In any event, Apples and Oranges will make you feel as though someone understands—and that you’re not alone.
(review previously published on www.nightsandweekends.com)