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Conventional wisdom holds that twins, especially identical twins, share a deeper connection to each other than siblings. This connection goes beyond mere empathy and verges on the metaphysical. Ellen Hopkins, in her latest teen novel, IDENTICAL, uses this idea as a starting point to explore a severely dysfunctional family whose twin daughters are in physical danger and emotional crisis.

Raeanne and Kaeleigh Gardella are the teenage daughters of two successful parents: dad Ray is a prominent judge and mom Kay is expected to win an upcoming senatorial election. The Gardella family is busy, with Kay mostly on the road campaigning and Ray working long hours. The girls have school to occupy them, but while Kaeleigh is involved in typical extracurricular activities, Raeanne spends most of her free time with her drug dealer, smoking pot, drinking and having sex. At home, both girls self-medicate, drinking from their father's bottles and emptying his pill bottles. It soon becomes apparent why: ever since a tragic car accident years ago, Ray has been sexually abusing Kaeleigh.

The twins respond to the abuse, as well as their father’s alcoholism and their mother’s emotional abandonment, in different ways. One rebels and tries to find power in relationships with men while numbing herself with drugs and alcohol; the other tries to avoid or discourage her father with overeating and emotional passivity while also numbing herself with substances and finally cutting herself to control her own body and the pain she is in. On the outside they seem like an ideal family as long as they all keep up the charade. But several changes in their lives make it impossible to pretend any longer that all is okay in their home.

Their mother is away more and more, and while the girls each begin new relationships with young men, they find out, when their grandparents contact them after many years, the events that so damaged their father. Soon, everything is spiraling out of control for both young ladies and they turn increasingly to drugs and sex, cutting and overeating. Finally, the tension is released with a frightening act and a surprising and astonishing realization. Friends new and old will be there to help pick up the pieces, but in the end, the twins have a steep and difficult road to recovery.

Hopkins's intense and graphic tale is told in non-rhyming verse. Kaeleigh and Raeanne take turns narrating the story with poems that often mirror each other, playing with repeated words and meaning. Some poems are visually styled, depicting the school bell, teardrops, broken hearts, keys and the bottle that symbolizes Ray Gardella. Despite these contrivances, the book is readable. It flows well and the back-and-forth between the girls’ voices makes sense throughout, though by the end readers will see it is actually essential to the story.

IDENTICAL is challenging both in style and subject matter. It is literary yet written in a real, relatable (though sometimes clichéd) voice. The subject matter, and Hopkins's handling of it, requires mature readership. The book is not without its flaws, and although the ending may be a tad far-fetched, the main point --- about the damage wrought by abuse and secrets --- is well-taken and important.

Reviewed by on October 18, 2011

by Ellen Hopkins

  • Publication Date: August 26, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
  • ISBN-10: 1416950052
  • ISBN-13: 9781416950059