- By Charles Lambert
- Gallic Books
- 416 pp.
- Reviewed by Patricia S. Gormley
- March 15, 2023
A young woman seeks her doppelganger — or is it her actual twin? — in Rome.
At the opening of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes, “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Charles Lambert takes this sentiment to heart in Birthright; the various family units he depicts in his new novel are unhappy in very specific ways. It makes for a thrilling tale of two women navigating lives of malicious betrayal, financial ruin, and even murder.
Lambert introduces Fiona, a 16-year-old British girl in the early 1980s, living a life of luxury she chafes against (while nonetheless enjoying its privileges) with a widowed mother she detests. At home one day, she finds an old newspaper clipping with a photograph of a girl who is physically identical to Fiona at that age, but “in clothes she didn’t remember wearing.” Fiona instantly determines this girl must be her twin sister, that the mother Fiona lives with is not “real,” and that she has been robbed of the life she was meant to have.
A few years later, Fiona’s quest to unearth her doppelganger lands her in Rome, where the majority of the book’s events take place. She knows with certainty that finding her twin will change her life; she never pauses to question whether the other young woman wishes to be found:
“The Shining. [Fiona] had watched it and seen the menace of the twin girls in the corridor, and the wall awash with blood, and wondered why people always found twins so disturbing. She had said this to [her boyfriend], and he had looked at her as though she’d asked him if the world revolved around the sun. But they are, he said, they’re totally creepy. It’s like one person split into two, and you don’t know how, you don’t know which part is which…maybe they’re both bad.”
Maddy, the one Fiona seeks, bitterly resents her own mother, whose poor choices and descent into alcoholism have forced Maddy into the hated role of caretaker and financial provider in a foreign city. She is adrift and isolated. “There were moments when she saw in people’s faces that flash of recognition, and then of distance,” Lambert writes, “when they understood that she was not Italian at all, and the space around them shifted, solidified, became a fragile but undeniable wall.”
The book isn’t a mystery — the question of whether Maddy and Fiona are actual twins is resolved early on — but rather a literary thriller in which the author mines the depths of his characters’ frightening psyches. Motivations and choices are laid out on a path from each woman’s twisted perspective, with one or two key pieces missing and no potential ending but violence. “I don’t know what I want, to be honest,” Maddy says at one point. “No, that’s not true…I know what I want. I want to go back to the morning I saw her and take a different road so that I don’t see her. I want her not to have happened. I want to be me.”
It’s worth highlighting that Maddy and Fiona are both unreliable narrators. They are also prickly, manipulative, and deceitful. But it’s in the moments when readers are forced to put themselves in these women’s shoes — to contemplate the strain of traversing a fractured reality in which trust cannot exist — that Lambert’s writing is truly outstanding.
The pace throughout Birthright is relentless, the narrative gripping. The ongoing character development lays the groundwork for plot points that play out late in the novel; the entire story is imbued with a sense of dread:
“Fiona pressed her forehead against the cold brick of the column, then moved away, staggering a little, because one of her legs had gone dead…She had a sensation like heartburn, of pure hatred, a jet of hatred that flared in her throat. She had never been this hurt before. I can’t believe this happened, she told herself. Whatever it costs, she said to no one, she’s not going to get away.”
If the book suffers anywhere, it is in the execution of its climax, in which accusations are flung, decisions are made, actions are taken, and then…nothing. We get an epilogue detailing how various matters have been resolved, but there’s little attention paid to the psychology behind Fiona’s and Maddy’s ultimate choices. Aside from this, Birthright is an excellent tale filled with razor-sharp observations about deeply unhappy characters. Tolstoy would approve.
Patricia S. Gormley recently moved to Alexandria, VA, from Miami, FL; she is still trying to understand “seasons.” She lives in NoVA with her librarian husband and five small, mysterious beings who claim to be cats but who behave like permanently disgruntled people.