Prison or sanctuary? That’s just one of the thorny relationship questions facing a pair of identical twins.
When Eula Kieland, director of the progressive Drayton Orphanage in Pennsylvania, accepts Becca and Linny Carey in 1926, she knows she’s bending the rules. (Both Eula and Drayton have real-life prototypes.) The charter stipulates white girls, and the twins have a black grandmother; but Eula is captivated by them, despite their secret world (they have their own vocabulary) and constant identity-fooling. Their tricks decrease as they settle in, and different racial identities emerge in a fight over an admirer, as Becca turns ultra-black, Linny ultra-white (their grandmother, who shows up later, has an unfortunate “polka-dot” pigmentation). Is all this a full plate? Not for Gardiner (Somewhere in France, 1999, etc.), keen to explore the double in all of us, but especially in Eula, who lies on the couch for two other real-life figures, the breakaway Freudian Otto Rank and the diarist Anaïs Nin. A third preoccupation is a history of the orphanage itself. These competing interests slow the narrative, for all the thrillingly melodramatic adventures of the twins, together though apart, after graduation. Becca wins a scholarship to Peiping, while Linny hops a freight to San Francisco. Different countries, same experiences: locked rooms and sexual exploitation. Linny escapes from a commune/whorehouse to return to Drayton, but Becca is caught up in political intrigue and unwittingly betrays a host of Chinese students; she will be raped by a ferryboat captain before her eventual rescue. Relative calm reigns after the twins’ reunion at Drayton, where Linny is now a sewing mistress, despite an episode between them of life-threatening violence (possibly an inherent inevitably with identical twins, warned Rank). By the end, Linny is a successful designer, living with Becca in the Philadelphia ghetto.
Provocative and elegantly written, but overly didactic. For all the talk, Eula never does confront her other self, and the twins never clear the hurdle of dating and marriage.