Sophia Lambton’s The Crooked Little Pieces follows Isabel and Anneliese van der Holt from the age of six in 1920s Zurich, into their early twenties in Blitz-struck London. Raised by their neurology professor father, each van der Holt twin is exceptional in her own way, with Isabel holding the promise of being a musical prodigy, and Anneliese following her father’s passion for medical sciences. Together they move countries, attend school, nurture and neglect their talents by turns, suffer many of the expected triumphs and heartaches expected in a coming-of-age story and yet… I never quite cheered for these girls.
Protagonists do not have to be good people, and I have certainly taken my own, private glee in following a story through the eyes of some true monsters, but at the end of the day a reader needs a reason to like the people they’re reading about. I never found Anneliese and Isabel likeable. Isabel decides to pursue marriage because being a wife will mean she doesn’t have to keeping trying with her music, and Anneliese becomes obsessed with her therapist to the point that she steals important documents from her, and then attempts to bring them to the attention of the medical community against said therapist’s wishes and best interests. They are both self-destructive, and dismissive of other people as beneath their attention or care.
Don’t get me wrong, Lambton has fully fleshed out both girls. Their characterization is strong, and with the chapters alternating perspective between the twins and their father (until his death) we get a thorough understanding of how they speak, the ways they act in different situations, and why they are the way they are, but that just make their narcissism more blatant and their actions pettier.
Then there is the is the language of the text itself. Lambton has a dreamlike, drifting approach to the story (hence this novel clocks in at over 400 pages), and an approach to sentence structure that does not always lend itself to readability. Take, for example, this sentence from chapter 8, in which a coworker of the twins’ father is propping her elbows up on a counter:
The kitchen top began to hold her weight as she sustained her elbows on it.
It’s not incomprehensible. You and I, dear reader, know what she means about leaning on a countertop, but there is smoother language out there.
All of that said, I should reiterate that this is a 400+ page novel by a young writer who obviously has a grasp on how to create fully-realized characters. She also certainly set up the potential for some interesting scenarios: the push and pull between a flighty, musical twin and her more grounded, scholarly sister. The dynamic of being raised by a scientist father who has, if not a preference, at least a greater understanding of the scholarly daughter as opposed to the musician. The comatose mother who I have not even touched on in this review. The enigmatic, female psychologist who Anneliese begins seeing, bearing in mind that this would be the 1930s and thus the infancy of clinical psychology as we know it today. The universal tensions that came with being in London after one Great War and before the second kicks off. There’s some really good and interesting material to be plumbed there, and I certainly wish Lambton the best luck with her next installment in this series.
However, sadly, to me The Crooked Little Pieces never quite sang.