by Marie Brenner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
Review by James K. Luiselli, Ed.D., ABPP, BCBA on Feb 17th 2009
The trials and tribulations of sibling relationships have been the topic of novels, memoir, and more than a few psychological inquiries. Apples & Oranges is Marie Brenner's heartfelt memory of her brother, Carl, a perplexing man who was simultaneously her foe and comrade. The tale she reveals is a captivating account of two very different people searching for a peaceful coexistence.
Carl Brenner was a peculiar fellow. As children, he and Marie did not see eye-to-eye about many things, their struggles continuing into adolescence, college years, and adulthood. Carl, it appears, had an unshakeable world view that frequently put him at odds with his sister, as well as their parents, peers, and other family members. Not exactly asocial, he alienated many people with a dogmatic approach to life and curious fascinations. He dominated conversations, was inflexible, and had difficulty accommodating interpersonal conflicts. Throughout the book, Marie looks for answers to explain Carl's behavior and personality--but mostly, she strives to understand her bittersweet relationship with him.
After attending law school and spending time as a practicing attorney, Carl abandoned his profession to establish a new career as an orchard owner producing fruit. His particular expertise was with apples. Starting out, he learned everything he could about them, studying books and trade publications, and working relentlessly to create and harvest perfect specimens. He had success, notwithstanding the many pitfalls confronting an agriculturalist. Marie, a writer and journalist, maintained fleeting contact with her brother while she and he lived on opposite coasts. There were telephone calls, and emails, and the occasional visit, all colored by the persistent angst that dominated their time together and apart.
And then, Carl's life was shattered when he received a health-threatening medical diagnosis. Unexpectedly, he called on his sister for support, sending her into a turbulent maelstrom of conflicting emotions and distress. How could she help this insular man? What do you do when the person in need resists your efforts? And what about the ambivalence you've always had toward him? These are just some of the challenges Marie faced in coming to grips with Carl's illness while hoping to reconcile her relationship with him.
Apples & Oranges is a testament to Marie Brenner's superb writing and the story she had to tell. Chapters are woven together with childhood memories juxtaposed among written family correspondence, travails she faced when living with Carl, and her internal dialogue shared poignantly with the reader. Truly, this is a memoir she wrote to make sense of Carl and how her relationship with him changed in response to catastrophic life events. Whether or nor Marie realized these objectives, the book tells much about dignity and courage, a tribute to the author and the brother she so devotedly portrays.
© 2009 James K. Luiselli
James K. Luiselli, Ed.D., ABPP, BCBA is a psychologist affiliated with May Institute and a private-practice clinician. Among his publications are 6 books and over 200 journal articles. He reviews books for The New England Psychologist.