Book: What Are You Like?

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What Are You Like?

Author: Anne Enright
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

Anne Enright is one of Ireland’s most exciting new writers, a beguiling storyteller of warm humor and wry lyricism. In her American debut, she gives us a novel of the fierce bonds of origin and the connections and disjunctions of family that will establish her as a wise, fresh voice in fiction.

At the opening of What Are You Like? Berts, a new father, struggles to love his baby daughter, simultaneously mourning the wife who died giving her life. Raised in the shadow of his quiet grief, Maria finds herself at twenty in New York City, awash in nameless longing and falling in love with the wrong sort of man. Going through her lover’s things, she finds a photograph of herself aged twelve, in clothes she’s never worn, a place she’s never been. It will send her home to Ireland, to the slow unraveling of a secret that may prove more devastating than Berts’s long sadness, but more pregnant with possibility.

Moving between Dublin, New York, and London, What Are You Like? is the story of a woman haunted by her missing self. Troubling and hilarious, it posits an unforgettable chaos theory of family, of daughters sent out into a world that is altered forever by their leaving, and of our helplessness against our fierce connection to our homes and the people who give us life.


Some novels you nibble away at, half unthinking. Anne Enright’s prose bites back. The Irish author of The Portable Virgin and The Wig My Father Wore has produced a third book as unexpected and lively as a miracle child—or is it twins? She tells the story of a Dubliner whose mother died in childbirth. Maria is now 20, living in New York, cleaning houses, taking drugs, sleeping with strangers, and generally being in a funk. In a lover’s bag, she finds an old photo of a girl who looks just exactly like herself, dressed in clothes she’s never owned, posing with people she’s never met. But this isn’t some gooey, alternate-reality identity fantasy. Maria has, in fact, a twin sister. Though each is unknown to the other, we learn both their lives inside out as they head toward a giddily inevitable meeting.

This twinning tale suits Enright’s style right down to the ground: Her mandate is to bump us into awareness, and if it takes double heroines, so be it. Her language does the rest of the work. On the very first page, for instance, she freshens the simple act of holding a baby into a joke: “And they handed her on from arm to arm, with the dip that people make when they give away a baby—letting her body go and guiding her head, as though it might not be attached. Nothing worse than being left holding the baby, they seemed to say, except being left with the baby’s head.” In fact, Enright is transfixed by the weirdness of the body, as when Maria visits a dairy farm: “She is too old to dip her fingers in the milk and let the calves suck. Though when she does, a feeling she has never had before goes straight up her arm and into her right nipple. Hello, farming.” Enright writes fiction meant to surprise. But her message is surprisingly traditional: biology matters. —Claire Dederer

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