ANNE ENRIGHT'S FIRST release in America is a fragmented thing, a collection of stories and a novel at the same time. Enright's episodic approach reflects the inchoate lives of her dual heroines Rose and Maria Delahunty, twins born in Dublin in 1965 and separated at birth. Rose and Maria's mother died during childbirth, leaving their grieving father, Berts, to care for them. Unable to withstand two reminders of his loss, Berts gives Rose up for adoption.
As a result of this decision, the twins separate and follow different paths. Rose, who comes of age in the distant shadow of her mother's absence, emerges as a plucky problem solver, her confidence paired with equanimity. Maria, aware of what fate has cruelly stolen, skitters along the edge of insanity, cutting herself compulsively. She moves to New York and takes a squalid apartment in Harlem, where she moons about, wondering why God bequeathed her such a tragic birth. Then one day, when she is going through her lover's belongings, Maria discovers a photograph of her sister, launching an odyssey to find Rose. Once instinctually aware of each other's existence, the women tack blindly toward each other.
If the novel's structure mirrors its characters' mindsets, its language is their sad flesh. In prose both viscous and lyrical, What Are You Like? brings to life the body's greedy genius, what it remembers and suspects. Berts, who hides the fact of Rose's existence from his second wife, slowly rots, his lumpy, cancer-ridden corpus protecting (and embodying) his foul secret. Likewise, each daughter senses a lack in herself that, it appears, can be completed only by her twin. Enright symbolizes this connection by adorning each of the twins with an extra vein ringing her right arm.
Although Enright's lush prose highlights the enduring ties of blood relations, it never takes us to the marrow of this family. Her stylish sentences fail to mask the narrative's arch and contrived quality. What are the chances Rose and Maria would share the same lover? Rose and Maria, too, are never fully developed as individual characters. In the end, we feel trapped on the outside of this family, looking in at the tangled mesh of their emotions.