Birds of a Feather: An Excerpt from Alix Ohlin’s Dual Citizens

We’re thrilled that Alix Ohlin, author of the new novel Dual Citizens, and Julia Phillips, author of Disappearing Earth, will be appearing together at Parnassus on Tuesday, June 25 at 6:30 p.m. to sign and discuss their books. In anticipation of their arrival, we’re delighted to share an excerpt of Dual Citizens right here. (And don’t miss out later this week, when we’ll share an excerpt from Disappearing Earth!)

In Dual Citizens, Lark and Robin are half-sisters whose similarities end at being named for birds. While Lark is shy and studious, Robin is wild and artistic. Raised in Montreal by their disinterested single mother, they form a fierce team in childhood regardless of their differences. As they grow up, Lark excels at school and Robin becomes an extraordinary pianist. At seventeen, Lark flees to America to attend college, where she finds her calling in documentary films, and her sister soon joins her.

Later, in New York City, they find themselves tested: Lark struggles with self-doubt, and Robin chafes against the demands of Juilliard. Under pressure, their bond grows strained and ultimately is broken, and their paths abruptly diverge. Years later, Lark’s life is in tatters and Robin’s is wilder than ever. As Lark tries to take charge of her destiny, she discovers that despite the difficulties of their relationship, there is only one person she can truly rely on: her sister.

In this excerpt, Lark and Robin are sharing an apartment in New York City. Robin has just spent the summer performing in Europe.

In New York, I waited for Robin’s return. I hadn’t heard from her during her trip, and I’d had to imagine her summer for myself. Now I was restless with anticipation, wanting to know how closely the reality would conform to the pictures in my mind.

But Robin wasn’t doing any of the things I’d imagined. She wasn’t testing the keys of a ramshackle piano, feeling its bones shift as she rehearsed before rows of empty red velvet seats in an auditorium that had been resplendent a hundred years ago. She wasn’t nursing a coffee at an outdoor café, steadying herself for the evening performance, or sipping some aromatic liqueur the owner insisted she should try at least once. She wasn’t dipping her toes in foreign rivers. She wasn’t playing Rachmaninoff — I knew now that she was a Rach 3 pianist — to adoring crowds. She wasn’t holding Bernard’s hand as they walked over a footbridge in the early morning, his hair skunky with potent local hash, their eyes pleasantly glazed. She wasn’t thinking about me, back in New York, in the Tunnel. She wasn’t getting ready to come home.

Instead of Robin, a postcard came, bearing a picture of a little blond girl wearing flowers in her hair. Above her head was the word Ytterby. Robin’s usual taste in postcards was kitschy; she liked to find the tackiest one available, with cartoon animals or neon lettering, and I couldn’t tell if this little girl was cute or too cute, in Robin’s opinion, or merely the only postcard available.

I spent a long time dwelling on the image because the message on the back made so little sense. Robin had written only a short sentence: Don’t look for me.

I was confused. Why would I look for her when she was on her way home?

On a Tuesday morning, the phone woke me. I’d had trouble falling asleep the night before, and the ringing filtered only gradually into my groggy brain. When I picked up, the man on the other end sounded annoyed.

“It’s about time,” he said, vexed. “Where were you?”
It seemed a rhetorical question, and I said nothing in response. “Are you there?” he said.
I recognized the low register and unconcealed impatience as belonging to Boris Dawido. I wandered into Robin’s room, the only one with a sliver of window. Outside, the day was spectacular, the kind of sleight-of-hand morning only New York can provide. Yesterday had been oppressive and terrible, but this day was fashioned from different material. The last of the summer flowers clung bountiful in the trees, but fall had snuck into the air. The sky was a wide and cloudless blue. There was for a brief moment no traffic, no yelling, and no car horns: a pocket of perfection.

“Can I speak to Robin?” he said.

“She’s not back yet.” I was puzzled.

“Have you heard from her?”

“I got a postcard,” I said.

“I received a call last night from Nils Anderssen.”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Hold on and I will tell you,” Boris said, his tone even more vexed and irritable. “He’s my contact who set up Robin’s trip. He had been trying to reach me for days but I’ve been in Durban, working with a composer on a commissioned piece about the new South Africa.” I said nothing during the pause he left. “Anyway, we finally spoke last night. Robin walked off the tour.”

“Walked off?”

“She told Nils one night after the performance that she couldn’t feel the music. He asked if she needed more practice time, less practice time. It wasn’t his first encounter with a diva. She said she was very sorry, but she had to go. He reminded her that she had certain obligations. She said her heart wasn’t in it right now. He suggested perhaps her heart could get in it with the aid of a small financial bonus. She shook her head and said something about her soul. Nils is furious with me, and I will have to bow and scrape to him.”

I shook my head. The picture I’d held in my mind, of Robin and her shabbily elegant touring life, was so vibrant that I couldn’t dislodge it even in the face of this new information. “What about Bernard?”

“Nils said the boy departed separately.”

“Do you mean they broke up?” I said.

“I cannot emphasize how little I care whether they did.”

“But is she okay?” My voice rose higher, an anxious squeak. “Your guess,” he said, “is as good as mine.”

“But this happened a while ago? So where is she?”

He said nothing, and I understood that he wasn’t worried about Robin; rather he was angry, deeply and perhaps permanently angry, and since Robin wasn’t available he was prepared to be angry with me instead. “I don’t know,” he said, “but if I don’t hear from her soon—”

Rather than let him finish the sentence I hung up, and sat in the quiet of my sister’s empty bed, looking at the beautiful morning in my pajamas.


I didn’t know what to do. Call our mother, call the police, get on a plane to Europe and look for Robin myself? Maybe my sister was heartbroken; maybe she’d lost her mind. I’d read that after Agatha Christie’s husband fell in love with somebody else and asked her for a divorce, she disappeared for eleven days. Some people think she was trying to frame her husband for murder, or at least embarrass him, but others believe she was so traumatized by heartbreak that she lapsed into a dissociative fugue and forgot who she was. She was found in a hotel in Yorkshire, registered under the last name of her husband’s mistress, and never spoke publicly about what had happened during those eleven days. It’s possible she didn’t know herself.

I could call all the hotels in Scandinavia, asking if they had a young Canadian woman staying there who didn’t seem to know who she was.

I could look for Bernard, but I had no idea where to find him. I didn’t know his aunt’s name, or his mother’s.

In the end I called home, not having anywhere else to turn. My expectations for help were low, and still weren’t met.

“So, she’s gone off somewhere,” Marianne said without distress once I’d explained the situation. I could hear her heavily exhale, then inhale.

“Are you smoking?”

“Of course not,” she said, and the exhalations stopped. She was a terrible liar, probably because she didn’t care very much whether anyone was fooled.

“I’m worried about her.”

“And you want me to do what?” she said.

Standing in the Tunnel’s tiny kitchen, I closed my eyes in irritation and wished I’d never called.

“Your sister fait comme elle veut, Lark. She wants to be famous, she tries to be famous. She has enough, she leaves. She’s a narcissist.”

“She’s an artist.”

“She gives herself permission to do whatever she wants, if that’s what you mean,” she said.

It seemed to me that she was describing herself. We lapsed into silence, stalemated.

“I can’t believe you aren’t concerned,” I finally said.

“She left me, and now she left you,” Marianne said, and I could hear the satisfaction in her voice. “Now you know how it feels.”

* * *

Excerpted from Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin. Copyright © 2019 by Alix Ohlin. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Meet author Alix Ohlin
as she presents Dual Citizens
with Julia Phillips, author of Disappearing Earth

Tuesday, June 25, 2019,
6:30 p.m. at Parnassus Books
Presented with The Porch
Wine & light snacks

This event is FREE to attend and open to the public!