Twin copper-skinned beauties Linny and Becca Carey are ten years old when they arrive at Drayton Orphanage in 1926. Save for a birthmark on Becca’s breast—or is it Linny’s?—no one can tell these orphans apart. Born entangled in each other’s arms, without any membrane between them, they’ve nested themselves into a cocoon to steel themselves against the world—and forged a connection so intense that even they sometimes forget who’s who.
When questions about the girls’ race surface, their personalities divide—one identifies as black and the other as white, so that “when they look in their mirrors, each sees an exaggerated color of skin.” A battle between selves ensues: Can one exist only at the expense of the other? Or are their egos so tightly stitched that to separate them would be to tear “each of them down the middle because the binding held”?
The girls are an infatuation for Eula, Drayton’s director, and the tension between them mirrors Eula’s struggle with her own alter ego: There’s Eula “who deceived gentlemen” and Eula “who deceived ladies.” In her quest to make Drayton a model of progressive education, Eula stifled her emotions toward colleagues and students. But when the twins come under her care—perched precariously on the line between inseparable and intolerable (they keep a knife under their pillow while sleeping in each other’s arms)—Eula is forced to confront their oppression as well as her own.
Throughout, Gardiner—who lives in Unison, Virginia—threads provocative commentary on sexuality and race. Unfortunately, he’s fixated on the notion that “we must all recognize the double who stalks us,” as Otto, Eula’s “nondoctrinaire therapist,” admonishes. Digressions into Otto’s battle with his alter ego make an already intricate pattern too florid. Even more distracting is Otto’s lover, protégée, and fellow alter-ego struggler, Anais, a needless character who informs Eula: “Your twin isn’t an evil sister; she’s your editor.”
Double Stitch is a good book that might have been great—if only Gardiner’s twin had done some editing.