Book review: Apples & Oranges

Review of: Apples & Oranges: My brother and me, lost and found
by Marie Brenner
Picador (2009), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 304 pages

Marie Brenner is, irrefutably, several things. She is a talented journalist, for sure. Her story on tobacco insider Jeffrey Wigand, “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, inspired the 1999 movie “The Insider”. She also is a woman who had a complicated relationship with her family, a family that includes a social activist and friend of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, a Presbyterian minister, a store owner and an apple farmer. She is a woman who lost a brother, recently, to cancer, a brother she was close to — and anyone who has had a close sibling will understand without being told that close isn’t always easy, isn’t always without anger, love and hate all rolled into one relationship. Marie Brenner is a woman who wrote a book about all these things, and I honor her reasons for doing so. Ultimately I respected her, but I fear I was disappointed in this book.

Perhaps the subject matter is too close? The feelings too raw? Because my main criticism is about the writing itself, and I know, from her other work, that Brenner is a better writer than this. I found her style here, first off, to be highly confusing; her manner of speaking, of jumping topics too quickly. Of using italics to show someone is speaking, but only sometimes. It was chaotic. And the through-line of the book itself was problematic. Detours into family history in disjointed sections; new people (Marie’s family, friends, colleagues) thrown into the mix without much explanation, so that I constantly found myself trying to keep track of who was who and wishing desperately that there had been a family tree chart included in the forward; an elliptical way of describing things that was frustrating, at best, to the reader. The section where she describes how her parents met, for example, was hopelessly enigmatic in a way that came off as too clever by far and not comprehensible enough. Far too often I was forced to spend too much time figuring out what she was saying, leaving me with not enough focus or interest left to figure out why she was saying it.

A memoirist must, by definition, write about his or her own life, and obviously doing so involves the entanglement of emotions. That’s to be expected. The story Brenner has to tell — of her family, of her brother, and also of the two of them, as siblings, and the ebb and flow and sum total of their relationship — I think it is a story worth telling. But while in the end, I definitely understood what Brenner wanted to get from writing this book, what she wanted to accomplish, personally, by doing so, I am not so sure what she wanted me, as the reader, to get from it.