Book Review: Gemini, Sonya Mukherjee (2016)

July 25th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Two Paws Up!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. This review contains minor/vague spoilers!)

When I was younger, if I couldn’t sleep, I would mentally trace the stars of the Gemini constellation. Dad had taught us to find it when we were as young as six or seven, keeping us up late on certain clear winter nights, when Gemini would be easiest to spot. He didn’t know that much about constellations, but for some reason he needed us to memorize every part of those glittering, dazzling twins, so close to each other that they formed a single constellation. So we would bundle up in sweaters and jackets and follow him outside with our kid-size astronomy books and the star maps that he’d printed out. We would find Orion or the Big Dipper and use them to trace our way over to the bright stars Castor and Pollux, and from there we’d find the rest of Gemini.

For Dad it was all about the timeless beauty of those twins and their love for each other, which was more important to them than life itself. He couldn’t have known how for me it would be just the starting point to falling in love with all the stars. […]

But at some point I started worrying about Gemini, the celestial twins. Were they glad to spend billions of years together in the sky, always on display, or would they rather wander apart and explore?

“You keep saying ‘we,’” Clara said sharply. “You know, you don’t always have to speak in the first person plural. Some of us have to. But you don’t.”

“Don’t you ever want to be free of me?” I asked. There was a long silence, filled with nothing but the sounds of our almost-synchronized breathing. Almost synchronized, but not quite. “I want to be free,” she said finally. “But not free of you.”

Seventeen-year-old Clara and Hailey are conjoined twins: pygopagus, like Violet and Daisy Hilton, who were also joined at the back. (Or, more accurately, the butt.) They have completely separate upper halves, as well as two pairs of legs and feet, but share the lower half of a spinal column. When Clara kicks an oversharing Hailey in the shin, she feels the pain too.

In many ways, Clara and Hailey are like any other high school girls. Raised in Bear Pass – a tiny rural town in the California mountains – Hailey longs to travel the world. She wants to gaze out on Paris from atop the Eiffel Tower; spend hours contemplating art at the Louvre; and show her paintings at big city galleries. She wants more than her tiny little hometown can possibly give her. As lovely as it may be, who is Hailey to judge when she’s nothing to compare it to?

The more anxiety-prone of the two, Clara finds the familiarity and security of Bear Pass more comforting than stifling. She’s accepted her mother’s plan for her life: four years at nearby Sutter College, where Dad’s tenured professorship will score the twins free tuition. Yet the closest Sutter comes to meeting her academic interests is environmental sciences – a far cry from physics and astronomy – and their film program isn’t exactly a great match for Hailey’s painting, either. And every now and again, as she gazes up at the stars, Clara also feels the pull of the universe, so wide and vast. The arrival of Max, the capital-C-Cute new guy from LA, doesn’t exactly help either.

With graduation barreling down on them, which path will Clara and Hailey choose? And in the meantime, who on earth will they ask to the Sadie Hawkins dance?

Gemini is a coming-of-age story that’s both all too familiar – and also quite unique. It’s about first loves and the pain of rejection; leaving the nest (or being pushed out) to find your way in a sometimes cruel and uncaring world; being comfortable with who you are and finding a few special people who like you for you, too.

Though the stakes are raised for Clara and Hailey – whose disability rests at the nexus of extremely rare + and very visible, and thus okay to gawk at – I think we’re all meant to see a little of ourselves in them: a point underscored by the presence of Max, a stutterer who did a three-year stint in “special ed.” back in LA; Alek, who is rumored to have murdered his parents (but who really lost his dad to cancer); and Dan, a bright guy who has little interest in school thanks to his ADHD.

Of course, it probably goes without saying that I’m not a conjoined twin; nor do I struggle with a physical disability, visible or otherwise. So I’m hardly an authority on this, grain of salt, etc. That said, Mukherjee’s depiction of Clara and Hailey is simply lovely: compassionate, nuanced, and insightful. The author imbues each girl with her own unique voice; I never had trouble telling the narrators apart, not once. (The chapters alternate between Clara and Hailey’s POVs.) Mukherjee navigates sensitive issues with grace and ease, providing a window into Clara and Hailey’s day-to-day life without becoming one of those looky loos that Mom’s always stressing over.

Additionally, Mukherjee populates her ‘verse with complex, multi-layered characters; I pretty much loved everyone, or at least found them interesting. I’m relieved that she didn’t reduce Lindsey to a Mean Girl stereotype – though, I’ll admit, I had trouble coming around after viewing her for so long through the twins’ eyes. Hailey’s potential love interest, Alek, is intriguing enough on his own, yet I did appreciate the juxtaposition of Alek with Max. Both boys have so much in common, but also not. (I think you can guess who I prefer!)

Mom and Dad, though. They nearly stole the show for me.

Liza is like a double-headed Hydra, where one half is competing for the title BEST MOM EVER! and the other’s in the running for WORST MOM OF THE YEAR! From the time Clara and Hailey were born, their parents – but mom especially – rearranged their lives around their daughters. They gave up more lucrative teaching jobs to move to Bear Pass, a town small and isolated enough that everyone could get to know Clara and Hailey – and, hopefully, come to think of them as just two more girls. Liza shuttled them to childhood physical therapy appointments; arranged play dates and Q&A sessions; and met with teachers and administrators to ensure that their needs would be met. She’s their chauffeur, their cook, their seamstress, their secretary, their interior designer. Liza’s done everything in her power to ensure that her girls live “normal” lives.

Yet in her determination to be “normal,” Liza consistently steamrolls over Clara and Hailey’s feelings; dismisses their wants and desires; and denies their agency and budding independence. The whole Sutter College thing is a perfect example of this. Liza arranged their attendance long ago – probably even before either girl had any idea what she might want to study in college. Now Mom refuses to revisit these plans, even though it’s clear that the college isn’t a good fit, academically speaking, for either girl. Next to “everything is normal,” “we decided” is Liza’s favorite mantra – never mind that she made these decisions for her daughters unilaterally.

Dad, on the other hand. DAD. I love this guy. I think he’s way underrated – at least by Hailey, who interprets his quiet, laid-back demeanor as going along with whatever Mom says. But where Hailey sees a pushover, I see a guy who’s picking his battles and playing the long game: encouraging his daughters to try new things as opposed to pushing them into uncomfortable situations. It’s a tightrope, and Dad traverses it beautifully.

My absolutely favorite Dad moment is after the Sadie Hawkins dance, on the ride home:

“Someone had a good time,” was all he’d said, but it had been there in his tone, and in his quiet smile. He had known that we’d had more than just an ordinary good time. He had probably known that it had to do with me, and with Alek. And he’d been happy about it. He’d smiled to himself the whole way home.

Whereas Mom forbade Hailey to go to the dance with “that boy” – who she dismissed on the basis of one meeting – Dad’s actually happy that they hooked up. A dad who’s comfortable with his daughter’s sexuality: do you realize how rare and subversive this is? In a culture rife with jokes about fathers threatening their daughters’ dates with physical violence, and real-world expectations that it’s up to Dad to protect his “little girl’s” virtue? Honestly, I can count the number of times I’ve seen a Sex Positive Dad in literature on one hand. Right this moment, only one recent example comes to mind: Sigrud and his (adult) daughter Signe, from Robert Jackson Bennett’s fantasy novel, City of Blades.

The ending is pretty great too. Normally I find choreographed high school dance sequences realistic to the degree of hell no!, but this one? I could kind of sort of see it!

(On that note, I wonder whether anyone sent a copy of this book to Lady Gaga? I bet she’d love it. How could she not?)

The story begins softly, almost like a whisper – but by the end I was sobbing into a family-sized bag of potato chips. It’s hopeful and (tentatively) happy, but not unbelievably so.

So yes, definitely give Gemini a try, whether contemporary/”issues” YA is your bag or not. There’s so much to love here, starting (but not ending) with Clara and Hailey. Clara, whose talk of the stars captured my heart; and Hailey, whose pink dagger hair damn near severed it.

Read it with: Sarah Crossan’s One – but preferably after, as a slightly bubblier chaser.

P.S. Hailey, if you were real I’d totally buy you a Kindle.

Unfortunately, Hailey loved the observatory about as much as I loved art class. And at the observatory it was too dark for her to bring a book.

Yes, this part made me giggle as I read and highlighted it on my e-reader.

(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: Seventeen-year-old Clara and Hailey are conjoined twins: pygopagus, like Violet and Daisy Hilton, who were also joined at the back. (Or, more accurately, the butt.) They have completely separate upper halves, as well as two pairs of legs and feet, but share the lower half of a spinal column.

Clara and Hailey’s best friend is Juanita. Though there isn’t much by way of a physical description, I read her as Latina. Like Hailey, she dreams of going to college outside of Bear Pass, but is having trouble convincing her parents that they can afford it.

Clara’s love interest Max stutters and spent three years in “special ed.” classes in LA because he had so much trouble speaking in class.

Alek Drivakis, Hailey’s friend, prom date, and fellow artist, lost his father to cancer.

Bridget’s prom date Dan has ADHD.

Amber tries to set up Clara or Hailey (it doesn’t really matter which one) with Kevin Johnson, presumably because he’s epileptic.

Animal-friendly elements: Not really. While out watching a meteor shower, several bats fly over Max’s yard. Gavin and Josh begin harassing them, but Max takes the bats’ side:

“I’m going after him,” Josh declared. “Do you have a broom?” “There’s a fruit picker over there,” Max said, pointing to a long stick with a sort of metal claw at one end. “But why not leave the bats alone? We’re outside. It’s their territory.”


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