by Yvonne Su
Written as a part of our Tiny Review Series
In her debut work, Addie Tsai explores coming-of-age through autofiction, a term used to describe books that masquerade as novels but function as autobiography. As a Young Adult novel, Dear Twin has elements that draw fans to the genre—romance, found family, and individuation, for example—but what it does especially well is looking intimately into the painful parts of being a teen who has little support.
Tsai gave a talk at LibroMobile in November 2019 about how Dear Twin came to be from a memoir that did not get published. For the autofiction, she chose a combination of epistolary and narrative forms: the letters from the protagonist to her twin describe their shared past, and the narrative shows her growth in the present.
Poppy and Lola are twins. Poppy has always gotten less attention, and when Lola leaves, Poppy writes 18 letters to her, one for each year of their lives. The letters chronicle how Lola came to be missing, and why Poppy took it upon herself to bring her twin back.
Told between the letters is the story of Poppy finding a way out of a home that has housed so many ghosts—her twin, her brother, her mom, and traumas that at times feel too big for a teen to process. For example, Poppy felt responsible for protecting her twin from sexual predators. One of the questions she wrestles with is, What if protecting Lola means losing her?
Tsai takes the reader through how Poppy tries to negotiate with her twin and the adults in their lives. Poppy speaks to the reader in language that could be found in a teen’s diary: “I knew how it felt to be constantly at odds, constantly judging yourself by how you are seen, instead of by how you see yourself.”
Amidst heartbreak, Dear Twin also gives readers a glimpse into the joys of a queer teen’s life. Juniper and Poppy’s relationship blossoms as Poppy becomes more independent, distinct from Lola and as an adult separate from her father. Tsai refers to contemporary books (The Astonishing Color of After) and songs (“Power of Two,” by the Indigo Girls) that develop Poppy’s character as a queer teen looking for connection.
By the time she sends the 18th letter to Lola, Poppy finds the connection she has been searching for, even if it is unclear whether her twin ever replies. Poppy will never be severed from her twin because each painful detail she recalls is “etched in the tenor of Lola’s voice, almost indistinguishable from my own.” The reader can trust Poppy to tell the story of Lola as well as we can trust Tsai to tell the story of Poppy. As an autofiction writer, Tsai’s greatest strength is her voice: conveying the emotions and painful details of those adolescent experiences honestly, as someone who lived through them.
Yvonne Su is a former elementary teacher. She also writes for Mochi Magazine. She lives in Santa Ana, California.