Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Gemini by Sonya Mukherjee

Gemini is a very unique novel that tackles a very different reality, that of conjoined twins. Hailey and Clara are two seventeen year olds who share the lower end of their spinal column as well as their intestinal tract. They are "two complete, full-size people, with two normal, fully functioning brains" who share sensation in the lower half of their bodies. While they may share the lower part of their bodies, Hailey and Clara are very different persons. Hailey is outgoing, with pink hair, a butterfly tattoo on her shoulder, edgy black eye makeup and is determined to become an artist. Clara is shy, dressing blandly to avoid being noticed and fascinated by astronomy. Hailey is opinionated but Clara who by her own accounts has "sharp" opinions keeps them to herself.

Hailey and Clara live with their parents in Bear Pass, a small (fictitious) town in California. Their family moved to the town to avoid the stares and curiosity of strangers.  Their parents teach at Sutter College, a private four-year college where their father is a tenured professor in literary theory and British poetry and their mother is a lecturer. The small town means that most people know them and leave them alone.

When they hear that a new guy is coming to Bear Pass the twins are anxious but in different ways; Clara worries how they will be perceived and Hailey just wants someone interesting. The new guy, Max first appears in their AP English class. He's tall with blond hair, and has moved to Bear Pass from Los Angeles. While Hailey is not interested, Clara most definitely is. The twins learn from Bridget that Max appears to have an interest in astronomy so they along with best friend Juanita scheme to arrange a trip to the Sutter College observatory with Max. Their school is having a Sadie Hawkins dance and Juanita believes an outing to the observatory will give Clara a chance to ask Max to the dance. Meanwhile in art class, which Clara hates, Hailey talks to fellow art student Alek Drivakis whom she finds attractive. Like Hailey, Alek has a bit of an edge; he likes to wear black and his artwork frequently features corpses or fires.

At the Sandwich Shack,Juanita reveals that one of the teachers is pressuring her to apply to Stanford and other high level colleges. However because of costs and her mother's fears and reservations, Juanita plans to attend college locally despite being an excellent student. For Hailey this seems wrong because while she and Clara are stuck attending Sutter College which has about 500 students, she knows that Juanita will be able to obtain a full scholarship at Stanford. Even Hailey is not happy attending Sutter because it means her ambition to attend a good art school will not be realized. While the three are discussing their future plans along with another friend Bridget, Max arrives. Max tells the group that he has moved to Bear Pass from Santa Monica in his senior year because of circumstances involving his father. When Hailey asks Max to join them at the Sutter observatory so Clara can show him the stars, Max clams up and ends up leaving the cafe in anger.

At home the twins find their mother upset over American conjoined twins undergoing separation surgery in San Francisco. Clara and Hailey's mother believes the parents and the doctors are taking unnecessary risks in order for the twins to live independently. As with her own twins she believes the surgery is wrong. While the twins mother is opposed to them undergoing separation surgery, leaving Bear Pass or even doing day trips, their father is more open and encouraging, offering to take them to San Francisco.  Clara becomes angry at her mother over this, indicating that separating twins is not always wrong. Her confrontation with their mother surprises Hailey who decides that she is asking Alek to the Sadie Hawkins dance and she tells Carla that she should ask Max.

At lunch hour the next day they meet Alek who tells Hailey that he is applying for a summer program at  Golden Gate Arts in San Francisco. It's a three week intensive working with real artists. Alek encourages Hailey to apply and to plan to stay in the dorms. With Alek seeming very comfortable around her, Hailey asks Alek to the dance and he accepts. When Clara meets Max a few minutes later, she decides to make it difficult for him and tells him that Friday is his last chance to come with her to the observatory. Max reluctantly agrees to meet Clara but it turns out that he had planned to watch the Orionid meteor shower at his home. So Max turns the invitation around and invites Clara to his house as well as their friends.

Hailey manages to convince Clara to let her apply for the summer art intensive that Alek mentioned and at least go for the interview. Their meteor-watching get-together which includes Max's friends Josh and Gavin as well as Clara and Hailey's friend, Juanita initially goes well until Lindsey, Vanessa and Jasmine arrive. As Lindsey makes a move on Max and attempts to get rid of Hailey and Clara, Max becomes angry and his mom sends everyone home.

The next event Hailey and Clara attend is Amber's Halloween party which sees Hailey dress up as Galinda while Clara is the Wicked Witch. Max is at the party as the Tin Man and he and Clara make arrangements to go to the observatory at Sutter. Max explains to Clara what happened at his house telling her he was once a special ed kid and that he has a major stuttering problem. Alek crashes Amber's party to question Hailey about applying to the summer art program. He offers to take her for an interview or to take her portfolio. Like the other social situations, Amber's Halloween party ends badly for the twins. Alek shows Hailey something on his phone that deeply upsets her and Clara overhears a conversation between Max and his friends about the twins that disgusts her.

These events begin to affect how Hailey and Clara view themselves and result in them reconsidering the future they have planned. They embark on a journey of self-discovery that leads them to several momentous decisions.


Gemini is a novel about two teens with an unusual disability who struggle to take control of their future and to define themselves outside of their disability. Clara and Hailey are pygopagus twins joined at the base of the spine and sharing their gastrointestinal organs. Their parents, specifically their mother refused to allow them to be separated when they were young, although it appears their father did not completely agree with her decision and still has some doubts. Otherwise Clara and Hailey are physically healthy and thriving. Their family moved to a small town so that they could be protected from people who might want to take advantage of their unusual situation. But this isolation is beginning to bother the more extroverted twin, Hailey who is a gifted artist and who wants to study art at a good university, to travel and experience life more fully. Her quieter sister, Clara, finds Bear Paw just fine and is reluctant to travel anywhere where they might have to deal with many new people or situations. However Clara also finds her situation restrictive as she argues with their mother about how she has made assumptions about what life after separation might be like.

As the twins approach adulthood they must face the reality that friends and school mates will move on from the small town of Bear Pass. They come up against the reality of their situation, something they feel their parents have pretended doesn't exist. Both Clara and Hailey chafe at their parents efforts to portray them as "normal" because they know this is not really true. Carla tells Hailey, "I'm sure it's perfectly normal to have to share the job of putting out silverware because we can't be in two separate parts of the same room...I'm sure it's perfectly normal to always balance off the side of the toilet while your sister is peeing...I'm sure its perfectly normal...to have to spend your entire life in the world's smallest rural community so that no one will stare and point and laugh at you when you go out in public and see actual strangers." Hailey also dislikes how they pretend that they are normal but she recognizes why their parents do this because it is the simplest way to cope. "Normal, normal, normal. It's this idiotic mantra around our house. We claim we're normal. We build our lives around that lie. It's why we can't go anywhere, or do much of anything. If we did, we'd come up against the truth." But Hailey,even as a child knew they were not normal. "We were not like anyone else. Who besides us had two minds that understood each other perfectly? That worked in such perfect synchrony that they could operate their four legs and four arms in unison without discussion, giving them twice the strength of a regular child? Not to mention twice the imagination and bargaining power...We weren't normal. We were magical."

Beginning to face the reality that they are two people with different interests and goals in life but joined together leads them to experience some serious conflicts which is new as they usually "just work things out, often with very little discussion." Hailey accuses Clara of not caring about how she might feel about staying in Bear Pass and attending Sutter College which doesn't have the program she needs to further her art studies. "...your head is so crammed with your own problems, if you tried to make room for mine, your brain would burst open at the seams." This leads Clara to reconsider their choices and their future plans. She asks their parents to allow them to travel to San Francisco so that Hailey can interview for the art intensive. Clara does this because she believes that although she's satisfied with their lives and the plan for them, maybe Hailey is not. "All this time I'd been holding onto the idea that the life we'd planned -- or rather, the life our parents had planned for us, and that we'd accepted -- was the best that either of us could hope for. But maybe that wasn't true for Hailey. Maybe it was true only for me."

Hailey believes that it is wrong for their mother to limit their choices in life but she also knows she must work together with Clara to figure out their future. Hailey believes that art school and leaving Bear Pass likely won't happen but she knows there must be a change in their lives. So she decides to do what Clara has suggested and apply to film school at Sutter while hoping that she and Clara can live in a house or in a dorm at the college rather than at home. 

In addition to struggling with making their own decisions about their lives, both girls must now confront how their conjoinedness will affect their ability to date and to marry. Both girls meet boys they are attracted to but struggle with how those boys view them. Clara struggles with her attraction to Max and the fact that he doesn't feel the same.  She wonders how Max really views her and whether it matters. Clara also feels disgusted at herself. "It was me. I was disgusting. A mutant. Had I really forgotten that?" She remembers how her mother has explained they were to think about themselves. "The way we view ourselves has to come from the inside, not from the reflection that we see in other people's eyes." But Clara questions this advice. "But sometimes it seems to me that reflections are all we have. Without them, we could never see ourselves at all. "

At the same time Hailey is also very attracted to Alek. Things come to a head when the twins begin to assert some control over their lives by insisting that they be allowed to attend the Sadie Hawkins dance. Their mother at first refuses but then relents. Hailey wonders what their mother really believes about them. "Our mom was always carrying on about how normal we were and what normal lives we could lead, but I think we both began to understand that she didn't actually believe this. Or maybe in some ways she did, but not in others."

All of this plus the fact that Hailey wants to attend art school leads Clara to contact a surgeon about their situation and the possibility of separation. Hailey points out to Clara the lengthy recovery time from surgery as well as the possibility that one of them will die. But Clara admits that she is afraid she will be lonely once separated. She tells Hailey that she wants a chance at love and she wants freedom too. But Hailey tells her she isn't giving them a chance to see what they can accomplish.
"You're willing to die for that, Clara? We're only seventeen. We haven't really started our lives yet. We don't know what we can have and what we can make happen. Are we not going to give ourselves a chance?...I mean a chance at life as ourselves, Clara, without tearing ourselves apart."

It is Alek who shows the twins the way forward. From the beginning he tells the twins that he considers them special and he tells Hailey: "Though to be honest, I always thought it must be kind of cool, too. Like, how many people can say there's another person who understands everything about them?" When Hailey asks him if he really wants to be seen with them - two girls joined together and face the possibility that he will be called a freak, as Matt was,  he tells them "...I'd rather be a freak than a coward...What I mean is, I'd rather do what I really want to do, no matter what anyone thinks. And that's exactly what I'm doing."

Hailey's kiss with Alek makes Clara realize that she wants a full(er) life and not just a kiss from a boy. "...I wanted those things, but also a thousand other impossible things, and maybe a few possible ones too...All this wanting inside me was not going to go away. I couldn't turn it off. Something had been flickering to life inside me for years now, and it was growing steadier, and hotter too. If I tried to keep it buried much longer, I was going to go up in flames." What Clara has been wishing for all these years is being separated from Hailey - that she wants to escape Hailey. But Clara comes to realize that her fear of  how others will view them and what will be said is what is holding her back from leaving Bear Pass. Hailey explains to her that their conjoinedness is part of who they are and that they need to accept it and embrace it. That it can be part part of their strength.

Daisy and Violet Hilton
Overall, Mukherjee's novel was a very interesting exploration of an unusual medical condition and the ethical, social and personal issues involved. Her characters felt realistic and the situations the conjoined twins experienced, plausible. The title, Gemini, is a reference to the third astrological sign in the zodiac and refers to the twins Castor and Pollux.

Conjoined twins are a very rare medical condition. While most conjoined twins die in utero or shortly after birth, there have been several famous twins. One set of conjoined twins Mukherjee mentions in her novel, Daisy and Violet Hilton, were pygopagus twins born in 1908. They were abandoned by their single mother. The twins were bought by Mary Hilton who employed their mother, Kate Skinner. Mary Hilton and her husband trained the two girls as dancers and singers and then made them tour as sideshow performers. The twins were well known entertainers for many years starring in vaudeville and burlesque shows but their lives were strictly controlled and their earnings stolen from them.  Recently a documentary Bound by Flesh was made about the Hilton twins.

It's probable that in today's world, Violet and Daisy would have been separated as they were joined at the hip and spine and shared no major organs. Sadly Violet and Daisy died impoverished from the Hong Kong flu in 1969.

Book Details:

Gemini by Sonya Mukherjee
New York: Simon & Schuster     2016
326 pp.

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