Alix Ohlin’s latest novel, Dual Citizens, takes us on a journey through the lives of half-sisters Lark and Robin as they grow up, grow close, grow apart, and grow together again. Lark––quiet, studious, and four years older than Robin–– assumes the role of caretaker early in the sisters’ lives because their mother, Marianne, is too self-absorbed and volatile to provide more than the bare minimum of care. While Marianne is busy working yet another minimum wage job or meeting up with a new boyfriend, Lark takes care of her beautiful and vibrant little sister. Lark is happiest when she can fade into the background or slip under the radar, but Robin is the opposite––bold and attractive and more than a bit wild, she demands attention rather than avoiding it. Throughout their childhood the sisters seem to complement each other perfectly and they have the closest of bonds, but when Lark gets a scholarship to a college outside of Boston, she leaves her sister behind and their once unbreakable bond begins to shift and change. At college Lark is alone for the first time in her life and she finally has a chance to find out more about herself and the path she wants to take in the world. That is, until Robin shows up on the doorstep of her off-campus house and begs to stay with her. This separation and reunion sets up a pattern that the sisters continue to follow over the next couple decades as their bond stretches and breaks and reforms again and again.
Anyone who has a sister will recognize in Ohlin’s novel the unique nature of the bond that sisters share. With Lark and Robin, Ohlin perfectly captures the love between siblings, but also the frustration and miscommunication and worry that comes with sharing past, present, and future with another person. I particularly like the section in Lark’s college apartment when Robin is visiting and the sisters are cat-sitting Lark’s roommate’s elderly felines: one minute the sisters are dancing around Lark’s shared apartment eating Kraft mac’n’cheese and making dumb jokes, the next they are trading insults and dredging up old grudges over a dead cat that doesn’t even belong to either of them. To me, this juxtaposition perfectly depicts the ups and downs of sisterhood, showing both the joy and pain two people can impart when they know each other implicitly.
The universal themes of sisterhood in this novel are so clear because Ohlin does such a good job of depicting the specific relationship between Lark and Robin. Lark constantly feels the weight of responsibility toward Robin that she shouldered in childhood and has been unable to put down since, and though caring for her sister has enriched her life in many ways, it has also held her back from discovering what she wants for herself. Robin feels less responsibility than Lark, but she feels a certain obligation to live up to her sister’s expectations and make all of Lark’s sacrifices and care worthwhile. Eventually the imbalance of power between the sisters and the difference in their personalities causes a rift that isolates them both, but also gives them time to discover their own paths. When these paths do intersect again, they find that the rift between them and the time spent learning about themselves was necessary to bring them to a place of mutual understanding and rebuild the broken bonds of their relationship.
This novel beautifully details the complexities of figuring out how to live with others in this world, but also how to live with oneself. Lark and Robin are fascinating characters, and it is hard not to believe that they are out there somewhere trading stories about their childhood and bickering about something insignificant. Ohlin has a real talent for dissecting relationships and finding out what makes people tick, and her talent is on full display in this engaging novel about sisterhood. If you have a sister, read this novel, then go and tell her how much you love and appreciate her, even if you don’t always know it.