Book Review: One, Sarah Crossan (2015)

September 14th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

One of the Loveliest Books You’ll Read This Year

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

When conjoined twins are separated,
it’s deemed a success so
long as one of them lives.
For a while.

And that,
to me,
is the saddest thing
I know about how
people see us.

Sixteen-year-old Grace and Tippi are ischiopagus tripus conjoined twins. Fused at the lower halves of their bodies, they look perfectly “normal” – beautiful even – from the waist up (as Grace wistfully notes on at least one occasion). They have two heads, two hearts, two sets of lungs and kidneys, four arms, and a pair of fully functioning legs between them. Their intestines begin apart, and then merge; below that, they are one.

Summer is coming to a close, and their parents have just announced that they’ll be attending school – for the first time ever – in September. Up until now, the girls have been homeschooled at their apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, where they live with their parents; their paternal grandmother; and their younger sister, Nicola (“Dragon”). But the donations have dried up, and the state will only offer financial assistance if they attend a private school. And so it is they come to begin their junior year in Hornbeacon High School in nearby Montclair.

If you think you know where the story’s headed from here, join the club. I expected One to be a story about bullying, at least at the outset. And while Grace and Tippi do encounter no small amount of fear, hostility, and tactlessness – not just from their fellow classmates, but also teachers, neighbors, shopkeepers, extended family, and even their own doctors, who flaunt them like a medical exhibit – their transition to Hornbeacon goes surprisingly well.

This is thanks in no small part to Yasmeen, a fellow outcast who immediately and enthusiastically takes the twins under her wing. Yasmeen was infected with HIV as a baby, so she can relate to the twins on multiple levels: Yasmeen understands what it’s like to live with a likely death sentence handed down at birth. She’s also all too familiar with the distrust and fear that Grace and Tippi must contend with daily.

There’s also Jon, the cute boy with walnut-brown eyes and stars that dance with his hands. Attending Hornbeacon on a scholarship, he lives in a ramshackle house with his stepfather Cal. His mom ran off, but Cal agreed to stick around long enough for Jon to finish high school. Jon doesn’t flinch when he looks at the twins – and he treats Grace like a bona fide person, instead of a monster or freak or one half of a broken whole. For the first time in her sixteen and a half years, Grace wonders what life might be like separate from Tippi; the possibility both excites and terrifies her.

Think you know what’s coming next? Wrong. It’s not Jon who threatens to tear the twins apart. No girl does anything stupid for the love of a boy here, nosiree.

When Grace develops cardiomyopathy, the girls face an impossible decision: if they’re not separated, Tippi’s heart is likely to give out as well, from the strain of pumping blood through both their bodies. But the chances of survival, for either girl (let alone them both) are painfully low. Grace and Tippi, Tippi and Grace; it’s always been this way. After a lifetime of near-total togetherness, can the girls live apart? Do they even want to?

Told from Grace’s point of view in free verse (the book consists of 231 short poems in total), One is as unique as it is heartrending. This is only the second book written in free verse I’ve ever read; I thought the technique worked quite well in Holly Bodger’s 5 to 1, but here it makes the story sing. And shine and sparkle and every other wonderful thing you can think of. Seriously, there aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to adequately describe my love for this book.

Grace and Tippi are just a pleasure to get to know. Grace’s poetry crackles with insight, a wry sense of humor, and an obvious love for her twin that’s occasionally tinged with annoyance and jealousy. Crossan does a masterful job of capturing the sisters’ obvious bond – a bond that, no doubt, sometimes threatens to bind and choke, particularly when Grace and Tippi are at odds: over acquiescing to private school; smoking and drinking; humoring their parents; even something as simple as caffeine consumption (Tippi is yay to Grace’s nay) proves a sticking point. As Grace notes, with just a hint of resentment

When Tippi wants something
she takes it with
two hands
and
with a body that belongs to us both.

It’s difficult to imagine myself in Grace and Tippi’s shoes, since their life is so unlike my own; I value my privacy, and they have so very little. Nearly every decision Grace makes affects Tippi as well, and vice versa. And while this is clearly a source of conflict for them, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Also interesting are the little strategies they employ to steal a little alone time: each twin listens to music blasted on headphones while the other kvetches to her therapist. Grace frequently reads while Tippi sleeps or surfs the ‘net. And it’s after Tippi has retired for the night that Grace finally checks an item off her bucket list: her first kiss.

While Grace and Tippi are the stars of the book, Crossan deals with a number of Very Important Issues in the supporting cast as well. Their fourteen-year-old sister Dragon is an aspiring ballet dancer; it quickly becomes obvious (to us, anyway; it takes Grace a little longer to catch on) that she’s suffering from anorexia. Dad is unemployed and an alcoholic; and when mom loses her job too, the family’s already tenuous finances go into a tailspin. Grammie is forced to sell her jewelry; Dragon has to work off her classes at her ballet studio.

Burdened by guilt, Grace and Tippi agree to star in a documentary. Reporter Caroline Henley has been hounding them for years. In exchange for near-total access, the girls get $50,000. Yet Caroline isn’t half the bloodsucking vulture she appears at first glance; when Grace and Tippi enter the hospital, Caroline leaves her camera at home. Along with Yasmeen and Jon, she ends up being a pretty honest friend in the end.

There’s clearly a wealth of research behind One; Crossan references both Chang and Eng Bunker (the infamous “Siamese” twins, who married sisters and fathered twenty-one children between them;

They lived, loved, fought,
and died together

which gives me hope
and makes me wonder
what’s stopping us
from being
a little Siamese
ourselves.)

as well as Daisy and Violet Hilton (who, like Grace and Tippi, performed for crowds – but died penniless. Also, in a chilling bit of foreshadowing, they died side-by-side of the Hong Kong flu.) In the Author’s Note, Crossan reveals that she based Grace and Tippi’s physiology on that of Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 53. Their mother was told that they died in birth – when in fact they were institutionalized in Russia and experimented on for over twenty years.

One is easily one of the loveliest and most memorable books I’ve read (or will read) this year; I cannot recommend it highly enough. While the ending is unbearably sad, it’s not completely devoid of hope; nonetheless, you’ll find yourself clinging to the many humorous and heartfelt moments leading up to that last.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. Sixteen-year-old Grace and Tippi are ischiopagus tripus conjoined twins. Fused at the lower halves of their bodies, they look perfectly “normal” – beautiful even – from the waist up (as Grace wistfully notes on at least one occasion). They have two heads, two hearts, two sets of lungs and kidneys, four arms, and a pair of fully functioning legs between them. Their intestines begin apart, and then merge; below that, they are one. When Grace is diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, the girls have to consider the possibility of separation.

Additionally, their father is an alcoholic and younger sister Dragon is anorexic. The family is struggling with crippling debt due to medical bills, as well as their father’s chronic unemployment and recent layoffs at their mom’s workplace.

Their best friend Yasmeen has HIV; she got it from her mother, before she knew she was infected. Jon is poor; he’s attending Hornbeacon on a scholarship. He’s lived with his stepfather Cal ever since his mom took off.

Animal-friendly elements: For the most part, no, but upon a visit to McDonald’s, Grace notes how usually she’d complain about “animal welfare”: “about cows kept in fields full of their own shit.” Jon also makes a snarky reference to Brazilian rainforest burgers.

 

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