We used to go everywhere together, my mother and I—visiting ancient temples, exploring local museums, watching Hindu festivals, staying up late to see the streets bloom with candlelight Now, she barely takes me on social calls. It's as if I'm a leper without a colony. (1.13)
Gemma's story begins like many teenagers': arguing with her mother. It seems like Gemma just really misses spending one-on-one time with her mom, so why does she treat her so badly when they are together?
I don't care if you come home at all. It was the last thing I'd said to her. Before I ran away. Before she came after me. Before I saw her die in a vision. […] And then the scream I've been holding back comes pouring out of me… (2.35)
This moment is the worst in Gemma's whole life, and she carries around the guilt of her words for a long time afterwards. This seems to show us how heavy and important words are and that we shouldn't say things that we don't mean—especially to those we love.
"Mother was Father's equal," I say coolly. "He didn't expect her to walk behind him like some pining imbecile." (3.33)
Gemma has a strong sense of self-worth and a good foundation of equality from her parents. Even though they still got along in the social system set up for the English, they also seem to have recognized some of its problems—at least, this is what Gemma took away from her childhood.
Right now, with that lock of hair falling in his eyes, he's the brother I've missed, the one who once brought me stones from the sea, told me they were Rajah's jewels. I want to tell him that I'm afraid I'm going mad by degrees and that nothing seems entirely real to me anymore. I want to tell him about the vision […] I want to tell him everything and have him understand. (3.42)
Sometimes family is the only comfort when you are feeling alone and scared. Gemma wants her brother to be there for her—she needs him to be—but he can't. He just doesn't get it.
And when he couldn't sleep, he retired to his study and the laudanum bottle that had become his constant companion. Sometimes I'd find him asleep in his chair, the dogs at his feet, the brown bottle close at hand […] he'd grown thinner, whittled down by grief and opium. And I could only stand by, helpless and mute, the cause of it all. (3.8)
Not only does Gemma feel responsible for her mother's death, but she also feels responsible for her father's addiction and depression too. Is she really to blame for ruining her family?
My family is vaguely Anglican, like everyone else, but the truth is that we rarely went to church in India. On Sundays, Mother took me for picnics under hot, cloudless skies. We'd sit on a blanket and listen to the wind whip across dry land, whistling to us.
"This is our church," she'd say combing fingers through my hair. (5.58-59)
Families give us our world view and values, at least until we are old enough to choose for ourselves. Gemma's mother gave her the gift of spiritual freedom from the beginning. How might this have impacted her character?
My sobs are great gasping hiccups. Miss Moore holds me in her sure arms, which remind me so much of my mother's right now, I can barely stand it. (16.104)
Gemma's art teacher becomes her new mother figure: strong, self-confident, educated, just, and kind. Lucky for Gemma, this woman is interested in helping her see her worth.
For some reason, the sight of Tom, reliable, snobby, shallow Tom fills me with good cheer. (25.52)
Families aren't perfect, or who we wish they were all the time, but still just being with a family member can be the most comforting thing in the world—even someone you don't like much and who makes you feel bad, like Tom.
I can't stand the sight of them huddled together against the truth, deaf and dumb to anything remotely real. (26.110)
Ugh. We totally understand Gemma's frustration with her family. Instead of supporting her and building a tight community by being able to acknowledge the truth together, her family is fighting it.
"Oh, Gemma, how could I tell you what I'd done? That's the curse of mothers, you know. We're never prepared for how much we love our children, for how much we wish we could protect them by being perfect." (32.18)
Ultimately families, no matter their make-up and issues, are about love and forgiveness. That is what Gemma learns by the end of this book.