Apples & Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found

by Marie Brenner

her life, Marie Brenner struggled to understand her older brother,
Carl. They had very little in common: Carl was a one-time lawyer
turned apple farmer in Washington State; Marie was an investigative
journalist in New York City, espousing every cultural and political
position Carl professed to hate. He was aloof and patronizing, his
put-downs cruel and constant; she was never allowed to forget that
she did not impress him. How could she break through?

All she wanted was a loving, solid relationship with her only
sibling. To accomplish this, she read everything she could find on
sibling relationships and entered psychotherapy herself. But Carl
remained Carl, unwavering in his unpleasantness, the man who went
so far as to go to a performance of Wagner’s “The Ring
Cycle” rather than attend his only sister’s

Then Carl was struck with a cancer called adenocarcinoma, which has
a survival rate of only 11%. Sure that this would be their chance
to bond, their last chance, Marie dropped everything in New York
and moved to Washington to be with her brother. He accepted her
help, in his own way, as she researched treatment regimens and
clinical trials, and learned everything there is to know about
apple orchards.

Marie also researched their family and uncovered a wealth of
genealogical research. While this did not interest Carl, readers
will be interested to learn that Marie’s aunt, Anita Brenner,
was also a writer, an art critic who was integral to bringing
Mexican art to prominence in the 1930s. No matter how successful
she was in her career, her older brother, Marie and Carl’s
father, never approved of her. His letters to his sister have
exactly the same negative tones of judgment and disapproval as
Carl’s letters to Marie. Are Carl and Marie this
generation’s version of an argument that has always been in
their family? Are their feuds learned behavior? How do they break
the chain?

Carl’s emotional difficulties and obsessive work led me to
wonder if he had Asperger syndrome. The author doesn’t say.
He treated his cancer in his own way, going to China and immersing
himself in alternative medicine. Carl and Marie grew closer, but
not close enough. She couldn’t predict what would happen when
he ran out of new therapies, and he never told her what he was
going to do, his last act of insensitivity.

Marie tells her story with grace, humor and a rare frankness. She
is not afraid to share with readers Carl’s complaints about
her --- desperate to impress, overly dramatic --- and he has a
point. There is one photograph of Carl and Marie as children. Marie
writes, “He is barely six years old and has already developed
the Carl Look.” I didn’t see any particular look ---
just a mildly uncomfortable boy who was nothing like his sister. In
the same picture, Marie is smiling and shouting, her energy

It’s that energy that comes across in APPLES & ORANGES
--- the work she puts into their relationship, the struggle to
understand, and the need to write it all down. She questions what a
lot of estranged siblings take for granted and won’t accept
that her troubled relationship with Carl always has to be that way.
As Marie found out herself in her research, there isn’t very
much written on dysfunctional sibling relationships. This honest
book is a valuable addition.

Reviewed by Colleen Quinn on January 7, 2011

Apples & Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found
by Marie Brenner

  • Publication Date: May 13, 2008
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374173524
  • ISBN-13: 9780374173524