Book Review: The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee

Title: The Conjoined
Author: Jen Sookfong Lee
My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

First, let me say that I really enjoyed this book. I just couldn’t wait to keep reading it to find out what was going to happen next. Next, I want to say “Spoiler Alert!” I have some things I want to get off my chest about this book, and I won’t be able to say them without giving some things away.

The Conjoined starts off with the main character, Jessica, cleaning out her pThe Conjoinedarents’ house with her dad after her mother has died. She and her dad make a grisly discovery in the chest freezer downstairs – two frozen bodies. The bodies turn out to be those of two sisters who were foster children that Jessica’s mother, Donna, was looking after when they went missing 23 years ago.

From there, the story goes in a few different directions at once. I think the core of the story is that Jessica embarks on her own investigation to try to find out what happened to these girls, and what involvement her mother had. I mean, if this wasn’t part of the book, then there wouldn’t have been much of a book at all. I was really intrigued and drawn in by this mysterious part of the story, and I was extremely disappointed when it was kind of left hanging at the end.

However, I do think that the author did this on purpose to shine more of a spotlight on some of the other themes in the book. One theme throughout the book is the way that fostering children out affects both their original families and their new families. Jessica’s mother fostered a number of children when she was a child, and this had a profound effect on the trajectory of Jessica’s life, and also of her mother’s, not to mention the children’s. Her mother spent her whole life trying to make up for a bad mistake she made when she was very young, and sometimes at Jessica’s expense. Many times, Jessica felt that she didn’t deserve her mother’s attention because she had a privileged life. Meanwhile, the foster children needed all of her mother’s love and care because they hadn’t been so lucky. This seems to have affected Jessica’s relationships later in life.

Also later in life, Jessica decides to become a social worker herself, much to her mother’s delight. In this way, the reader gets a glimpse into the foster care system from the other side, where the social workers do the best they can with the limited resources they have.

Another theme, of course, is grief. Many of the characters in this story are grieving in one way or another. Jessica’s mother, Donna, has been grieving pretty much her whole life, and as a result threw herself into being the best foster mother she could be (although we don’t learn about her grief until late in the book). Jessica, of course, is grieving the loss of her mother, and perhaps the end of her relationship.

One final thing. Why is this book called The Conjoined? I just couldn’t figure it out. I kept waiting for some reveal about how someone was actually a conjoined twin or something…and it never came! I mean, I guess you could look at the whole story as some kind of conjoined thing in a very abstract, metaphoric way. Is that it? I guess that just went over my head.

Overall, I liked this book a lot and I read it in just a couple of days. The way the different themes and sub-plots were woven together really drew me in and kept me turning the pages. I just with that the mystery at the centre of the whole story could have been resolved in the end.