Gemini, by Sonya Mukherjee

As soon as I learned about this book, I wanted to read it. It wasn’t available at the time, so I’d have to wait. And wait. And wait. I avoided reading reviews, but I saw the high average star rating it had—people who had the privilege of reading an advance copy loved it. But I still waited, and when you wait for something like this, especially when advance reviews say it’s great, you develop high expectations.

No high expectations in the world could have prepared me for how phenomenal this book is.

Gemini tells the story of conjoined twins Clara and Hailey. Their parents chose not to separate them after birth because of the risks, particularly because they’re connected at the bottom ends of their spinal cords, and their intestines are intertwined. Otherwise, they have two sets of arms and legs, and two distinct personalities, fashion sense, interests, and career goals.

They live in a small California town, and when they were younger, their mother visited school regularly and arranged playdates to make the community aware of their presence to prevent stares and such. By the time they’re in high school, they have attained a level of understanding amongst their peers and have solid friendships. I really enjoyed the camaraderie and support between Hailey and Clara and their friends Juanita and Bridget. There’s also the equivalent of a “mean girl” character, but the book doesn’t devolve into cattiness, and a later confrontation with this girl includes unexpected and believable depth and an opportunity for narrative reflection.

The story takes place during the first part of their senior year, and it’s a time in a young adult’s life that’s rife with story potential. Themes of fitting in, first crushes and kisses, applying to college, and finding oneself make their way into the pages. Add in a new (and cute) boy in school and a Sadie Hawkins Dance—a perfect narrative choice, as it allows Clara and Hailey to optimistically ponder asking boys to the dance and also pessimistically wonder if boys would want to go with them because of their unique situation.

All these elements make this book sound like almost any other YA contemporary novel. And to some extent, it is—and there’s not a darn thing wrong with that. In fact, I praise author Mukherjee for making this story feel so comfortable. Just because a book is telling the story of characters who are “different” in some way, the book need not be different. Just as Hailey and Clara don’t appreciate stares and whispers, I believe they wouldn’t appreciate their YA story to focus on their conjoined-ness but instead be a story about their individual uniqueness while they happen to be conjoined. And within the pages of this YA novel, Mukherjee gives us just that.

And we’re given so much more. The issues their parents faced upon their birth—whether or not to separate Clara and Hailey in a risky surgery that could result in paralysis and/or death—are also dealt with. As a parent of (fraternal) twin daughters, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine myself in their situation and wonder what I would have done. I don’t have an answer other than doing everything I could to raise and protect my children, and that’s what their mother does. But I’d also want my girls to grow into wonderful, compassionate, independent thinkers like Hailey and Clara.

It was easy to empathize with these characters, and I often found myself cheering and crying for them. At the end of several chapters, I had to put the book down and process my own emotions. But I always picked it back up because I was so deeply engaged by their narration.

One of many strengths of the book is that narration. The chapters alternate between Clara and Hailey’s first-person points of view. It’s no surprise that the story is told this way, and the decision to do so isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but the execution is exceptional. Mukherjee switched the perspective at all the right times, making the story seamless. She also uses the device in interesting ways, such as (1) to establish tension when one twin sees something and the other (the one narrating) doesn’t know it yet, and (2) to explore deep themes when something really awesome happens to one twin, yet the scene is narrated by the other twin!

I won’t apologize for being somewhat vague because I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, but that second example underscores two innate human desires: to be independent and not be alone. All of us, no matter what uniqueness we’re born with, deserve as much and deserve happiness, but it comes only with self-acceptance. By the end, Hailey and Clara make a powerful statement about that, and it was an absolute pleasure to experience the ride with them.

This is a MUST-READ book, it gets FIVE STARS from me, and there’s no doubt that Gemini will be near the top of my year-end favorite books list.

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Gemini is available at Amazon.

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