Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Book Review: Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited

Imagine you were thirty five years old and suddenly discovered you had an identical twin. That's what happened to Elyse Schein, a filmmaker living in Paris. Elyse had always known she was adopted, but when she decided to search for her birthmother, she learned instead she was born one of two identical twins.

Despite her initial shock upon discovering she's a twin, Elyse is thrilled to discover she has a sister. She's always felt someone or something was missing and learning she's one of two makes complete sense to her. When the adoption agency locates Elyse's twin sister, however, she--Paula Bernstein--is more ambivalent about being found.

Told in alternating first-person accounts, Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited is a fascinating exploration of twinship, adoption, and identity. Elyse and Paula discover they share much in common, despite the fact they were raised separately without any knowledge of the other's existence. They both write about film, they love the same movies, they both suffered from depression in college. What the reader learns when considering Paula and Elyse's stories is how truly different they are from one other. Elyse is more adventurous and open than her twin. But, Elyse, who has suffered more loss (the death of her adoptive mother, for example), seems needier than Paula. Paula is cagier than Elyse and protective of the life she has forged as a journalist, wife, and mother. Their unique voices and personalities demonstrate that identical DNA at birth only means so much. Nature vs. nurture? More like nature and nurture.

Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited is also a detective story. Paula and Elyse not only attempt to learn more about their birthmother, but they also take on the adoption agency in the hopes of discovering why they were separated and adopted out to separate families. The truth--a psychological "study"--is difficult for Paula, Elyse, and the reader to accept.

Identical Strangers is a compelling read and one teens might enjoy given its necessary focus on identity, adoption, and family.
For more on Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein's memoir, check out this episode of Talk of the Nation.