Marie Brenner's extraordinary memoir, "Apples & Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found," tells the story of her troubled relationship with her eccentric and often difficult older brother, Carl, who gave up his career as a trial lawyer to become an apple farmer.
The siblings were often at odds, but when Carl learned he had cancer, Brenner took a break from her life as a Vanity Fair reporter to help care for him.
Terrified of becoming an invalid and hoping to disappear, Carl committed suicide. Brenner used her her skills as an investigative journalist to uncover information about Carl and other members of her family, and to construct a record of her brother's life. Read an excerpt from the book below.
We fight at the dinner table.
Stay away from my apple farms, my brother Carl says. And stay away from the Cascades. You don't know anything about apples.
It is a tone that I know well. The mixture of hate and love, rage and need, all scrambled together.
It is not easy for him to breathe. His girlfriend, Frika, is by his side, acting as if everything is as it always has been, as if nothing in the world is the matter. She is oh-so-British, drops her voice at the end of questions, takes on like the queen. She pulls me aside in the kitchen and says, "He is the love of my life and always has been. We have never been happier." Her cheeks flush like a debutante's.
Her black lace nightgown hangs on a hook in his bathroom. At night, they stay up late and listen to Parsifal, Wagner's dark score of the holy fool. Her eyes gleam with pools of longing. She looks at him as if he is Devonshire cream. At the dinner table, she hums a few stanzas from Das Rheingold. "Fricka's theme!" she says. Her expression says it: Top that.
He eats two helpings of filet, then asks for a second dessert. Tarte tatin. Made by the other girlfriend, who was at his house for lunch.
"Heather sure knows how to cook," he says.
A shadow passes over Frika's face.
At lunch, Heather demonstrated her pastry-cutting technique. "I always put a crimped leaf on the top for Carl," she said.
"He is the love of my life," she said.
There are always apples around him. Women, too. Apple pie. Big, chic antique bowls of wooden apples in all colors: red and gold and striped. Apple ceramics, apple pencils, apple photos. Produce labels framed on the library wall: Gulf Brand Texas Vegetables from the Rio Grande Valley, Empire Builder, Wenatchee District Red Seal Brand. I am an American first, then a Texan, he would say, not understanding he sounded like Augie March. The clues are there, in the grad school classic Augie March, I later realize. "A man's character is his fate," Saul Bellow wrote, quoting Heraclitus.
You always have to show off and tell us what you know, Carl said.
"I'll be in Washington next week," I say. "I have an interview. I have to close a piece."
"You promised me," he says. "You said you would stay away from Washington State. You sat right here and said that you would not go to the Cascades."
He yells as loudly as I have ever heard him.
"Washington, D.C.," I shout back.
I have the trait as well.
He glares. I glare. In that glare is the jolt of our connection, the fierceness of our attachment. We stare at each other hard.
"I don't know what you are so angry about," he says.