Books: Marie Brenner's 'Apples and Oranges'

By the time you are 11 years old, you spend one third of your time with your siblings, more than you spend with your parents, friends—or alone. (Unless you're an only-child, in which case you spend most of your time with your imaginary friends.) Once she became an adult and had a child of her own, Marie Brenner had whittled her sibling contact to a terse, weekly phone call with her older brother, Carl, an apple farmer who had "emotions of poured cement." Any more communication led to a lot of screaming at each other, followed by a lot of shaking with rage. But when she was in her early 50s, she learned that her brother had been diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, an aggressive form of cancer, and Brenner, a writer at large for Vanity Fair, left her job and family in New York City to take care of Carl in Washington state. They got to know each other again, real fast.

Sibling relationships, Brenner writes in "Apples and Oranges," her memoir of her last-ditch attempt to repair her relationship with Carl, have been one of the great "unexplained gaps of psychoanalytic theory." The same could be said of the role of siblings in memoir, especially the therapeutic tell-all memoirs of late. Often, the focus is either on the parent, as in Honor Moore's "The Bishop's Daughter" and Augusten Burroughs's "A Wolf at the Table," or the child, as in David Sheff's "Beautiful Boy." When they make an appearance, siblings can seem like just a plot device, as in David Sedaris's essays, where his brother and sisters make wacky-neighbor-style drop-ins, then disappear.

Brenner clearly thinks that our relationships with our brothers and sisters hold a key to our inner lives. "How you are with your siblings," she says, "is directly related to how you are in the world." In Brenner's case, how she is in the world has contrasted with Carl in nearly every way since they were teens. The totems of her existence—drinking coffee, eating in fancy restaurants, being Jewish, opposing the war in Iraq—offend him on a deep level; his political conservatism, love of hunting, passion for Wagner and late-in-life conversion to Christianity mystify and enrage her. They do share a deep, family-bred anger and, perhaps as a result, a desire to order their universes by amassing information. For Carl, who left a career as a lawyer to pursue his dream of growing apples in the shadow of Washington's Cascade mountains, this means meticulously researching and inventorying everything there is to know about apple-growing. So Brenner, in her effort to know her brother, becomes an apple expert, too. "Today I have with me a list of fruit terms I will ask you about in the truck," she tells him. But Carl resents his sister's meddling in his territory: "You look at me with that look and clench your teeth. Bitter pit is when fruit has a stain in it, you say. And black scab is something that happens on the surface of the fruit. And then you say, but you really do not have to know all of this."

The reader doesn't have to know all this agricultural trivia either, and there are probably a few too many apples in "Apples and Oranges." The book isn't really about fruit, nor is it really about Carl; as in the case of all memoirs, it is mostly about the writer, which is both its greatest strength and weakness. At one point, a friend tells Brenner she shouldn't use the word "I" in front of her brother because he needs her to be as selfless as possible. She even practices saying, "You, you, you." Yet less than a page later, she's placed herself at the center of the scene again.

Fortunately, Brenner is a tougher-minded memoirist than most. Her reporter's training has given her an instinct for the revealing detail, and she never hesitates to turn that scrutiny on herself. You can see why Carl might be taciturn around this whirlwind of ego and energy, with her Starbucks habit and her yoga tapes and her endless note-taking inquisitiveness. ("You ask a lot of questions," a local waitress tells her.) "I am a reporter," she announces at the outset of the book, but that doesn't mean she's a great listener, and much of her battle with Carl is really a fight with herself, to stop asking for facts and hear the truth being offered.

In the end, Brenner can only tell her own story, and Carl, it seems, wants it that way, despite the fact that the siblings come close to rapprochement as Carl's health wanes. One of his final acts is a purge of all his possessions, a gesture that can be interpreted as an attempt to thwart Brenner's project: "There will be nothing a writer can draw on except memory, no letters, no sense of the man other than direct experience." He even erases the dates in his appointment books. "I will see my name, erased and faded, in day after day of entries," Brenner writes about those denuded diaries. It is a ghostly image, one that suggests an ongoing conflict between the writer and her putative subject, as well as two siblings' struggle to see each other for who they are.

Editor's Pick