October 24, 2016

Monday Review: GEMINI by Sonya Mukherjee

This is one of the most gorgeous and effective
covers I've seen. I love it.
Synopsis: Clara and Hailey are twin sisters, and like a lot of sisters, they are closer than close one moment, but in the next, they get on each other's last nerve. Hailey is the artistic one, Clara is an astronomy geek, and they couldn't be more different in terms of what they want out of life. Pretty classic sister stuff. But there's something big about this book that makes it much more than your average sister story: Clara and Hailey are conjoined twins, fused back to back at the base of the spinal cord. They have separate heads, bodies, and limbs, but their nervous systems are entwined from the waist down—so if Clara, say, steps on Hailey's foot, she feels it in her own foot.

The twins are seventeen, and have spent their entire lives in a small California mountain town where everyone knows and accepts them. But things are about to get a whole lot more complicated. For one thing, Hailey really wants to leave home to go to college—she wants to see the world, and she wants more out of life than their tiny community offers. Clara, meanwhile, wants to stay and attend the nearby college where their parents teach, sharing a house with their best friend Juanita and enjoying what she has. These are, needless to say, incompatible aims when you're physically inseparable from one another.

The other big wrench in the machinery is the new boy, Max. He's cute, he's mysterious, and he loves astronomy as much as Clara does. But, she wonders, how could he possibly want to have a romantic relationship with her? How could anyone from the outside world consider them as anything but freaks? Hailey's fearlessness counterbalances Clara's fears, but deep down, the future scares them both—and their parents are even more afraid. As both girls begin to tentatively explore their own dreams and goals for their lives, a possibly dangerous idea occurs to both of them: separation surgery. And the mere mention of the topic is enough to throw their home life completely out of balance.

Observations: There are a lot of interesting twists and turns in this story, and I found it intriguing (and wonderful) that both sisters are still able to surprise and confound one another—an amazing feat considering they have no choice about being present in one another's lives. The experience of being conjoined was handled with sensitivity, candor, and humor, which was admirable. Writing characters with disabilities, as an author who does not share that same experience, is a challenge, and I think it can be tempting to be tentative and shy away from the harsh realities of that experience. And yet ignoring the very real potential difficulties does readers a disservice.

I thought this was a wonderful example of a book that does not reduce characters to their disabilities, but creates distinct characters that are fully rounded who are striving for lives that are complete and fulfilling—as all of us do. This idea shone throughout the story, echoed by the subplots with various side characters who, also, are facing their own struggles in their own ways.

Conclusion: I'm kind of in awe of the author for tackling this unusual topic. The alternating perspectives were well done, and it was a story with a lot of heart.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Stanislaus County Library. You can find GEMINI by Sonya Mukherjee at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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