It’s hard to imagine any relationship more complicated than that of sisters, except possibly that of twin sisters. Author Sarah Pekkanen’s debut novel, The Opposite of Me, is the story of Lindsey Rose. Now twenty-nine years old, Lindsey believes that she is about to be promoted to the position of creative vice president of the elite and prestigious New York City advertising agency where she has toiled for several years. Unfortunately, not only does she not get the promotion, her career unexpectedly derails in a very humiliating and humbling manner.
So Lindsey leaves Manhattan, devastated and unsure about her future, determined to hide out at her parents’ Maryland home long enough to figure out what comes next for her. She is convinced that she can secure a good job in a local advertising agency, despite the way she left her prior position, but does not really want to resume her career in such an environment. What does she want to do next?
Alex, Lindsey’s fraternal twin, has always been drop-dead gorgeous, with long, glossy red hair, almond-shaped blue-green eyes, and translucent skin. Alex began modeling in high school and has segued into a career as an on-air celebrity gossip reporter for a local network affiliate. She is engaged to Gary, a tall, handsome, and successful real estate investor, and Lindsey is arriving back at home just in time to attend Alex and Gary’s engagement party.
In contrast, Lindsey has always felt that she looks like “a child’s drawing of a person: straight brown lines for the hair and eyebrows, eyes and nose and mouth and ears generally in the right places and in the right numbers. Nothing special; just something to pin on the refrigerator door before it’s covered by grocery lists and report cards and forgotten.” Lindsey has spent her whole life feeling like she lives in Alex’s shadow, so she compensated by being an excellent student and workaholic, achieving success in the business world through eighty-hour work weeks that left no time for a personal life, leaving her profoundly lonely. She does, however, have a very good friend in New York, Matt. But Matt has a girlfriend and their relationship is strictly platonic.
Returning to her hometown reunites Lindsey with Bradley, her high school boyfriend, who once proposed to her after sneaking into their high school and preparing a romantic, rooftop picnic for the two of them. Are Lindsey’s renewed feelings for Bradley genuine or is she simply on the rebound from her recent career implosion? Does Bradley still feel the same way about Lindsey or has he moved on and, if so, with whom?
A sudden turn of events causes Lindsey to uncover long-buried family secrets that reveal her life has been largely founded upon faulty assumptions about herself, her sister, and others’ perceptions of and reactions to the two of them. So Lindsey must decide how she will act upon that new information and craft a future for herself with that knowledge. Since Lindsey was always “the smart, responsible one,” she is no longer sure who she is . . . or what she is becoming.
The Opposite of Me is one of the best books I read in 2010; I loved it and could not put it down once I began reading it. Author Sarah Pekkanen has a delightful, fast-paced writing style that holds her reader’s interest, entertains, and stimulates further analysis of the subject matter all at the same time.
The first portion of the book, during which Lindsey’s life unravels, is hilariously tragic — a masterful roller coaster ride into which Pekkanen deftly straps her readers, along with Lindsey. But at the heart of the story of Lindsey and Alex’s relationship is the exploration of a very serious question that readers will inevitably ask themselves: What are the assumptions upon which I have based my own life? What assumptions have served as the foundation for the choices I have made about my own career, relationships, and future? And how different would my life be if I were to learn that those assumptions were erroneous all along? What would I do? Where would I go from here?
I’m intrigued by the way people get assigned certain labels in their family, like the “smart” one, the “pretty sister,” the “drama queen,” or the “peacemaker.” What if those labels don’t fit how we feel inside? What if they’re all wrong for who we are really meant to be?~ Author Sarah Pekkanen
Up to the point that Lindsey loses her job and returns home to Maryland, her entire life has been based upon a set of underlying assumptions about her own inherent value, her talents and abilities, her desirability, her place within her family, and the myriad ways in which her parents, teachers, bosses, and friends have responded to her over the years. The family dynamic has always revolved around Lindsey’s role as the intelligent twin and the many ways in which her place in the family differed from that of Alex, the beautiful one to whom all good things have always come easily. She observes that in high school, “Alex was the star, and I wasn’t even in her orbit.” Lindsey has also always believed that Alex’s life is ideal and free from problems. She perceives Alex as completely self-assured, confident, and loved and worshiped by everyone she meets because of her natural beauty. Lindsey has always been a bit jealous and harbored some resentment of Alex, expressed through rebellion: Lindsey has nurtured a “plain Jane,” no-frills persona, not wearing makeup or fixing her hair, and opting for a conservative wardrobe.
Of course, all the cliches about not really understanding anyone else’s life because we have not lived in their skin are true, a fact Lindsey learns through a series of surprising twists of fate. She discovers that it really isn’t any easier to be Alex than it is to be Lindsey, especially as events render Alex as vulnerable and shaken as she has ever been in her life.
Ironically, Pekkanen has two brothers, but no sisters. Her fascination with the way sisters relate to each other inspired her to portray “the relationship between Lindsey and Alex as messy and loving and complicated and competitive as possible.” Pekkanen deliberately fashioned the sisters as “complete opposites” in order to allow herself to explore the dynamics of two people with absolutely nothing in common who are, nonetheless, constantly scrutinized and compared because of the fact that they are twins. Her approach is extremely effective, especially when Lindsey begins to realize that what she thought was true all of her life never really was.
Lindsey and Alex’s parents are funny and authentic, but also end up seeming very wise, especially in the case of the girls’ mother. As Lindsey discovers the truth, I got the strong sense that their mother had been waiting a long time for the girls to figure things out and stop basing their choices upon the same old premises.
In the end, Lindsey finds a new career, and there is, of course, a dash of romance thrown in for good measure. Most importantly, though, Lindsey and Alex’s relationship takes on new form as they ponder their futures. In one particularly poignant passage, Lindsey explains her feelings:
I thought I’d known my sister, but I hadn’t. She’d been as much a stranger to me as I was to her. I hadn’t known Alex, the person I’d spent every waking second with for the first few years of our lives. We’d learned to crawl on the very same day. Mom still had a photo on the mantel of me with a bowl of spaghetti dumped over my head, and Alex laughing in the next high chair over.
In my old baby book with the pink cover, Mom had recorded the first word I’d ever spoken: my sister’s name.
Right here, right now, I had a second chance to have a relationship with my sister. I could choose to move on through the pain and hurt. I could hope I’d reach the other side instead of drowning. Maybe Alex and I would never be close — maybe we’d always be too different for that — but at least I could give it a chance. Give Alex a chance.
Is there someone — your own sister, perhaps — you need to give a chance on this New Year’s Eve? This is the night for resolutions and fresh starts. If you need inspiration, I strongly recommend The Opposite of Me because it is at once laugh-out-loud funny, surprising, moving, and quite memorable. I am very much looking forward to reading Pekkanen’s new novel, Skipping a Beat, which is being released on February 23, 2011. Be sure to check back as I will be reviewing it, as well.
I read The Opposite of Me in conjunction with the 2010 Read ‘n’ Review and the Fall Into Reading 2010 challenges.