This reading group guide forThe Orphan Sisterincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Gwendolen Gross. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
For as long as she can remember, Clementine Lord has always felt like the odd one out—“the unmated shoe”—when it comes to her relationship with her sisters. Although they are triplets, fraternal Clementine is not just genetically removed from the identical Olivia and Odette, but also different in every way imaginable: while Olivia and Odette manage bustling medical practices and prepare for motherhood, Clemetine struggles with her applications to veterinarian school and lives in her parents’ carriage house. But when a family secret threatens to unhinge the bonds that have been forged over the years, Clementine learns not only how deeply connected she truly is to her family, but also the changes she must make to break free from a tragedy in her past and move forward with her life and her relationships. In this story of sisterhood and sibling rivalry, of betrayal and unadulterated love, Gwendolen Gross has created an enduring novel that speaks to the complications and the pleasures of growing up, adapting to shifting relationships, and finding yourself along the way.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. The Lord triplets communicate in a number of complex ways that are often immutable to those outside of their bond, and even to Clementine herself at times. Describe the various methods of communication—both verbal and nonverbal—that the sisters employ throughout the novel. Which methods are more effective and why? When does Clementine feel left out of the dialogue, and how does this make her feel?
2. Clementine comes from a family of doctors, yet she decides to attend veterinarian school and chooses to surround herself with animals. Why doesn’t Clementine choose to join the family profession, and how does her decision impact the family and her role within it? Why does she gravitate toward healing animals versus humans?
3. Clementine’s thoughts and memories are largely dominated by Cameron. Why is it so difficult for her to move on? How does Cameron’s suicide affect her life ten years later? To what extent does Clementine use Cameron and his death as an excuse to hide from relationships with men?
4. Until her grandparents passed away, the Lords lived a comfortable but modest life. How does their newfound wealth impact their lives and relationships with one another? What is the significance of “The Accounts”? Why does Dr. Lord need to control the household finances of the family in such an authoritarian fashion? Especially considering the fact that money is no longer an issue for the family?
5. Clementine repeatedly accuses her father of being paternalistic and overly controlling of the women in the family. Describe Clementine’s father’s view of women, thinking about his relationships with his wives and each of his daughters. Why does he act this way, and how do his actions, secrets, and behaviors affect the family? What does “The Diary” symbolize, and why does Clementine choose to remove herself from it when she leaves for college?
6. Odette and Olivia have both become doctors who care for babies and children; they both are married to responsible and successful men and become pregnant at the same time. Do you think Odette and Olivia are so similar because they share an identical gene pool, or for other reasons? Can Clementine’s deviation from her sisters’ nearly indistinguishable paths be attributed to the fact that she has a different set of genes, to the events of her life (including the tragedy of Cameron’s death), or to something else entirely?
7. Olivia is the first to know about her father’s infidelities and secrets, yet she repeatedly refuses to tell Clementine and Odette about why their father has disappeared. Why does Olivia keep her father’s secret, even though it means essentially betraying her sisters?
8. Clementine spends much of her free time volunteering at an animal shelter and is the owner of two adopted dogs, as well as a ferret she took in when she was a still a student at Oberlin and a boa constrictor she rescued from a sewer. Why does Clementine feel such empathy toward creatures that need to be saved? Does her need to rescue others apply also to her relationships with her parents, her sisters, Cameron, or Eli? Why or why not?
9. Clementine’s mother’s reaction to her husband’s secret life is to essentially carry on as if nothing has happened. Why and how is she able to maintain such a calm facade when her world is crumbling around her? What explains her stubborn loyalty? When do we see the cracks in her armor? Has her character evolved by the end of the novel? If so, in what ways?
10. How is Clementine’s relationship with Eli different from her relationship with Cameron? Why does it take Clementine and Eli so long to act on their feelings?
11. While her sisters slave over college applications and eventually leave the rarified world of Princeton to attend the equally prestigious Harvard University, Clementine attends the more experimental Oberlin College and later moves to San Francisco, where she works on-and-off at a health food store and a bookstore. Why isn’t an Ivy League education important to Clementine? How does she feel about not conforming to the standards set by her father and sisters?
12. Who is the “orphan sister” and why? How does your impression of this term change over the course of the novel? Is there more than one character that could be given this title? Why or why not?
13. How do the births of Olivia and Odette’s babies toward the end of the novel help with healing the Lord family’s relationships? Did Clementine’s powerful emotional reaction to the newborn babies and her sisters’ new roles as mothers surprise you at all, and why?
14. The names that the author chose for the Lord sisters of the novel are not accidental. If Odette and Olivia are doubles, has Clementine found her double in her half-sister Claudette? Why or why not? Is there anyone else in the novel who you would consider to be Clementine’s double?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Clementine and her sisters play a game called “Party Trick,” where each speaks one word in turn to form a sentence “with the fluidity and natural cadence of a single person speaking.” Try to play Party Trick with your book club and see how long you can keep it going!
2. Spend the afternoon volunteering at an animal shelter near you, or host a fundraiser event and donate the proceeds to an animal rescue agency in your area.
3. Stock up your kitchen and make “Adjective Sandwiches”! Assign an adjective to each person (try manic, melancholy, gleeful, narcoleptic, whirlwind, ponderous, sublime, and confusing, if you need some ideas). Have a tasting and award a prize to the person whose sandwich best fits their adjective.
A Conversation with Gwendolen Gross
Where did you get the idea to create characters who were polyzygotic triplets? How would the story have been different if the Lord triplets were identical, or all fraternal?
I have always been fascinated by the internal lives of multiples—my grandmother had triplet uncles. There’s a family story about the theft of one of the three at a train station when the family was emigrating from Poland. The woman who snatched and ran with one baby screamed “it’s not fair; she has three and I have none!” and I’ve always thought of that as a seed for a story. Maybe the next one. Meanwhile, there were triplet boys in one of my neighborhoods—they were French, and older, which made them deeply enigmatic.
One day I asked my friend Cindy (a writer with a medical background—and mother of twins) whether it would be possible to have two matching triplets, and one fraternal. She said yes, they’d be polyzygotic, and also that she knew a set just like that. What a thing to be born not-alone, but to be alone! I knew I’d have to write the story from Clementine’s point of view— that triplets who were all the same or each different, genetically, wouldn’t present the same layers of sameness and difference. I wanted Clementine’s voice to have the influences of her sisters’ and the strengths and lonelinesses of a self.
Did you always know you would tell the story from Clementine’s perspective? How did you make that decision?
I did know—point of view is a crucial decision in the foundation of anovel (in the workshops I lead this is fascinating—how we can movecloser to a character, how what we know about her changes with point of view); I love exploring proximity and distance. It’s something youcan do in fiction, in music, in art—but it’s much harder in real life. Inclose third person, you can see outside your narrators—with first youare too close to see everything—you have to use dialogue and expositionand internal monologue to reveal your characters’ positions in theworld. It’s all about the looking-glass self. With Clem, she has twinfunhouse mirrors—she has a closer link to two others than most of uswill ever have. (Only a first-person narrator can reveal how the one seesand feels within the three.)
The book is dedicated to your sisters and a “sister in words.” How did your relationships with your own sisters influence you when you were working on the book? Do you ever communicate with them in nonverbal ways?
My sisters each have their own extraordinary strengths and talents—my older sister, Claudia, was the first ocean swimmer to cross the Sitka (Alaska) Sound. My younger sister, Rebecca, seems to learn languages like learning colors. My youngest (half) sister, Samantha, is in law school now—she was the first baby I fell in love with; I thought of her when I wrote about Adam’s birth. Each of my sisters and I seem to know some small things together in a way no one else can know them—perhaps only the next line of an obscure melody, or how to true a bike wheel (okay, I’m really rusty) or how to tie a bowline. When our mother had a dramatic and terrible bike accident on my twelfth birthday, my older sister Claudia and I knew to turn back our bikes—we were at least a mile ahead of the rest of the family on a Vermont road—and even though we had energetically sought the lead and distance, we stopped and turned together. We knew together something was wrong, and I don’t know how we knew. My friend Cindy and I have a running narrative of messages; somehow we also seem to know what sentence comes next in the ether. Sometimes we write simultaneous matching messages, even though the topic at hand could be a knitting pattern or the history of the cell. Everyone should have friends like that, who understand your oddities without elaboration.
Clementine spends much of her time with her rescue animals and volunteering at a shelter. Are you an animal lover yourself? Have you ever owned a ferret, or a snake like Clementine does?
Oh yes, in addition to writer, composer, and scientist, vet was on my grow-up list when I was little. I never had a ferret or a snake, though I almost adopted someone’s ferret at Oberlin. I’ve had dogs since my tenth birthday (currently we have a corgi named Huck Finn), and they are always adept at knowing human habits better than we know ourselves. When I was in college I applied for a job at the Boston Museum of Science as a live animal and physical science demonstrator. I wanted a summer job, and even though they wanted someone permanent, they gave me a try. Mostly, I believe, because when they asked me how I felt about snakes, I said, “Fine!” Fine meant holding twenty pounds of active snake (unless they’d just been fed) while standing on stage in a lab coat, answering questions about venom and habitat. I learned to love holding the big old constrictors and helping them shed. We had rescued possums (fifty teeth in a possum’s mouth—more than any other North Americanland mammal still trips off the tongue) and kinkajous and a porcupine (porcupine rash burns!), and I learned demonstrations with them all. I felt like an ambassador, and I also felt honored to understand each of them just enough to show them off onstage and help care for them.
The Orphan Sister and your previous novel The Other Mother tackles suburban life and the relationships between family members. Why do you think these topics provide such rich fodder for fiction? Do you draw on your relationships with your own family when writing your novels?
Ooo! Sneaky question. Fiction is a chance to frame your truths in more interesting facts than you have yourself, or by selecting only the juiciest fact-berries from life. We want to read about ourselves, only made more interesting. I also love the almost magical element of how the triplets can hear each other—much in the way a dog hears you thinking about a walk and looks at the leash on the hook before you even know what you’re thinking.
Family secrets play a huge role in the novel. Do you think that family members should keep secrets from one another? Under what circumstances is keeping a secret necessary? Was Clementine’s father right to keep his secret for so long?
No. Yes. Maybe. I think secrets become habits. Between adults, most secrets are about fear or power—and often that power or fear is expanded or diluted in the telling. I think, as a parent, that sometimes you forget that you had a whole narrative of life before your kids were born; you don’t necessarily have a right time to tell them everything. On the other hand, it’s our job as parents to tell all the important things. I’m not sure when Dr. Charles Lord could have just come out and said, “and by the way, I have another wife and daughter,” to his kids. I also think his wife knew (except, probably, about the fact that the marriage was never officially dissolved); I believe he may have told her, and felt, in his controlling way, that the best way to raise his children was to have them do what he said and not what he did. If they knew about all his mistakes, they might be wont to repeat them, or at least not to idolize him. He wants to be idolized. He also was too selfish to realize how not taking control of the one thing that had been purely his choice (the first marriage, and its dissolution) made him absurdly culpable. He wanted to keep everything—even if he was flooding the boat with his chattel. So maybe. Or probably: no.
Like Clementine, you went to Oberlin College. How did you draw on your experience there to make Clementine the character that she is? Why was it so important for her to attend that school versus her sisters at Harvard?
Oberlin was an incredible place—college really was about learning to learn, for me. I was in the college (majoring in science writing) and the conservatory (like Cameron and Eli, but I studied voice) and was in awe of so many musicians around me. I sang in composition majors’ recitals and experimental microtonal operas; I went to master classes; I took Rocks for Jocks and danced wildly in the ’Sco. I taught a course with a friend named Karen Silberman—about Women and Body Image. We’d seen so many gorgeous young women striding toward the dining hall giving bitter voice to body disgust, and the class taught me how to teach. I also met my husband there, but not until senior year (he was a math and religion major). There is so much freedom in that time of life, and also a deceptive sense of immortality. Just like any transitive time, not everyone makes it through. Clementine doesn’t want to be the same, even though she wants to be understood and known. Watching her sisters speak in tandem, choose in tandem, makes her want difference that much more. But she’s also seeking a same that makes her feel like the other half of a whole. I think in a way her time at Oberlin was really as much about her work—about how she learned what kinds of connections she wanted in the world—as it was about meeting Cameron and Eli, even though the book focuses on the pairing and loss. Another thing I loved about Oberlin was how people emerge from that egg of learning all goopy with desire to make change in the world—to find the work that most honors their powers. We all have powers, energies, talents, raw material. What we choose to do with that material is work, and work is not a four-letter word. No disrespect to Harvard, of course.
What’s next for Clementine and Eli? What about Clem and Claudette? Do you think you would ever return to these characters? Where do you think they are now?
I would love to hear what you think, actually. Write and tell me. I often think of my characters’ post-book trajectories, and I even write them sometimes, but for this particular moment, I think I’d rather give readers some credit and let them decide for themselves—if the fictional dream (à la John Gardner) was continuous, the best honor of a reader to author would be to dream it on.
What is your current mood, and what would you include in an “Adjective Sandwich” to convey that mood?
This is my favorite question. I was so honored when I wrote to Ma’ayan Plaut and she sent the recipes for the sandwiches in the novel. Today, I’d make Anticipatory: Thinly sliced crusty multigrain bread spread with three-berry jam from the local jam-man, grilled asparagus,
smoked turkey, and just a little bit of mini-Winnimere cheese (from Jasper Hill—a Greensboro, Vermont, creamery!). (Sweet, smoky,slightly bitter, tender, tangy . . .) I’d press it in the panini maker and eat it with a mug of Tra Que Chai my sister Claudia sent me from San Diego. Since mini-Winnimere is very rare, you could use goat cheese instead, or even just the thinnest slice of cheddar. I hope Ma’ayan writes a book. I’ll get copies for each of my sisters.
Which writers have influenced your work the most, and why? If you could only read one book for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Laurie Colwin, Barbara Kingsolver, Eugene Ionesco, Shakespeare and his leeks, my high school art history class and Janson’s Art Through theAges, Tom Lux’s poetry, Ten Ever Lovin’ Blue Eyed Years with Pogo, Alice Monroe, National Geographic, Tolkien (my dad read them all aloud to us), Frog and Toad books (those in Mom’s voice), Annie Dillard, Elizabeth McCracken’s Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, Robert Frost, the Little House on the Prairie series, Black Beauty, Annie Proulx, and the ever-favorite bathroom reading of childhood: the comics, JAMA, and New England Journal of Medicine. The one book? Gasp. What a horrible question. I suppose I’d say Gregory and Lady Turtle in the Valley of the Music Trees by Laurent de Brunhoff. But that’s today. Ask me again tomorrow.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
Oh, yes, always. Multiple narrators—multiple secrets, a girl about to leave for college vanishes and each neighbor has seen a different departure through their windows.