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Untwine by Edwidge Danticat
Scholastic, September 2015
Reviewed from final copy

Can I admit something embarrassing? This is the first time I’m reading Edwidge Danticat. I’ve been recommending her for years to eager readers, but I haven’t actually sat down and read any myself, until now. But what a title to start with: Untwine has received 2 starred reviews, and came out in September. I loved reading this book; it had me tearing up on the subway, and nearly missing my stop. What are its chances to get a medal in January? Well, that depends (of course) on RealCommittee. The layered language and beautifully woven themes make this a memorable and gorgeous read, but there are a few flaws, too.

We have a tremendous list of things that really work here. Danticat’s writing, at a sentence level is phenomenal. I wanted to read parts of it out loud on the subway (I did manage to refrain). A description of Dad in the driver’s seat: “His voice was cool but his hands weren’t.” Giselle’s thoughts on separation from her twin are painful-beautiful — specific, concrete, and deceptively simple. On remembering Isabelle and her music: “I wanted to put the flute together and raise it to my lips, just to see what it would sound like. I wanted my parents to time me while I held a note for as long as I could.” All of her remembered firsts, all of her belatedly-realized lasts are beautiful and heartbreaking.

Danticat works many levels of meaning into her words. Giselle’s and Isabelle’s clasped hands become a bracketing image; it becomes a central metaphor for the entire book — the family is taking itself apart in order to put itself back together. Likewise, Giselle is putting her life back together — there will be proms without Isabelle (and without Tina and Jean-Michel). After birth and after the accident, the twins are literally physically separated, untwined and untwinned. The story rotates around this unmaking and remaking, and although it slows the plot down, it does allow for a great deal of emotional weight to enter the text.

Giselle’s voice is stunning, but the family (and here I mean beyond the nuclear family) as a whole have well realized characters. They each have relatable moments, and they function together as a realistic unit. The ambiguous peace at the start of the novel between the parents is delicate and grows as the story progresses. Having extended family around makes total sense, and it made me realize how infrequently we really get to spend a lot of time with a family, en masse, in YA. The relationships we see are complicated; these people interact with each other in ways that react to and bring meaningful change. The character growth (as everyone reacts to the new circumstances) shows how complicated love is.

The plot overall is slow and full of time shifts; it largely takes place in Giselle’s head as she heals and reflects. Although not much happens, it’s all about the emotional experience, and on that level, there’s no wrong turn. The concentration here is less on the events and more on the reactions, changes wrought, and inner significance to the characters. The ending is also powerful and beautiful. Giselle’s half goodbye to her twin reduced me to tears; she worked hard to offer that to Isabelle, and it was a fitting ending for the story.

To be honest, I’m not fully ready to say that this is a contender, but I’m having a hard time explaining why. I wonder if part of it is the slow place — the first scene is brutal and jarring and yet still gorgeous and amazing, but the pace very quickly reduces; it’s particularly slow at the beginning. Although the slow pace allows us to focus on Giselle’s internal journey, there are a few elements that pull us out of her head and her direct experience. In particular is the question of whether or not the accident is really an accident. However, this issue is resolved so neatly, and melts away, leaving no marks, no impact, on Giselle, that it feels a bit tacked on. I think the story would have been stronger if it had just stayed firmly inside of Giselle’s experience and allowed us to focus on her healing and her family’s adjustments to change and growth.

I wonder, too, if part of it is the inevitable comparison to If I Stay…which I haven’t actually read myself. Not having read it, this is pure speculation and wondering (even more than my usual speculation and wondering, since I’m always just doing guesswork about what RealCommittee might be thinking). So before I talk myself any further down some random path, what do you think? Am I on the wrong track here?

About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

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