***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: Good surface-level writing, a great hook, poor depth and follow-through.
This is fundamentally a romance, which is sort of a shame because 1. the depth of the romance is not believable, given how little we know of "A" and of Rhiannon when they first meet, and 2. the potential of the "hook"--that A wakes up in a new body every day--lends itself more to deeper themes of identity that are not well explored here because of the distraction of the romance.
I could see the editor writing. Can I admit that I've never read any of Levithan's books before? It was fascinating to me that I could see the editor at work. He knows what mistakes not to make, and so there's a kind of surface mastery. And he has the heart of a writer, but it's somehow overshadowed by the editor, or maybe he has seen and become immersed in too many writing styles to have settled perfectly into his own. There were moments when he almost achieved the sort of lyricism that Franny Billingsley and Laini Taylor have with language, but it would ever so slightly fall apart, like he was imitating his favorite writers and not channeling his own muse. I wish I had highlighted these, but the closest I can come from memory are the lists of "This is what Rhiannon sees. This is how Rhiannon's hair falls by her face," etc, which felt forced to me after a while--deliberately lyrical and yet not organically so. (But this isn't the best example.) Sometimes Levithan's language worked great, though: "There are moments when I don't think about her, or even think about me. There are moments I sit in my frame, float in my tank, ride in my car and say nothing, think nothing that connects me to anything at all."
The ending was rushed, and seemed incomplete. We've met the Reverend once, and we've gotten a hint of some possibility of staying in one body, and we know of others in Montana who have his condition, and that's it. All at once A decides to set Rhiannon up with a great guy and leave town to "figure things out," when leaving town means potentially damaging the life of the girl whose body he gets the next day, a thing he has tried his whole life not to do. He says he's running from temptation and coercion, but he also says he's running to something, to investigate. All at once it's laid out like a first book in a series; i.e the story arc feels incomplete. And what's the motivation of the Reverend? Is it just "misery loves company," or does he have some master plan? Does he have minions all over the country? Letting questions like that unroll at the last moment without time to savor them constitutes a serious plotting and pacing issue, even if there will be a sequel. (It's my understanding that there will be a companion book in Spring of 2015, from the point of view of Rhiannon.)
The ending was also...wrong. I thought Rhiannon (can I just say how much I hate that name? More on that later) was written as a girl who grew stronger from knowing A, so it really wasn't necessary to "set her up" with her lifelong partner before A left. Did Levithan think we, the readers, needed that for her? That we needed to know she was being taken care of? I thought it cheapened her growth. We know that she has found relief in breaking up from Justin, and we know she has strong girlfriend relationships, not to mention that she was able to resist A, this potential love of her life, because she saw the practical implications would lead to a life of frustration and sadness. Oh, and she happens to have a decent family. I was not worried about her in the least. I didn't think she needed taking care of. I'm a bit offended that Levithan thought she did.
Human Cognitive Development.
I love the premise of this novel, but of course every great premise has something that doesn't add up, something that's hard to "explain away." And to me it was the human (and brain) development of an infant/toddler/small child subjected to this sort of existence. Levithan did the best he could in making A grow to slowly understand that he was the one who was different, and he tried to say that nurturing by any adult as a baby is, well, all the nurturing you need, but in fact I feel like this is really sort of an extreme experimental set-up that could create a genuinely unstable human being (by our standards). A's upbringing isn't as severely isolated as that little French wild child, Victor of Aveyron
, but I'm thinking in those terms; that the developmental repercussions would be severe. Human beings need connections in order to learn empathy and love, which A has mysteriously developed in perhaps more abundance than children raised in stable, loving homes! This premise in another writer's hands would have been a thriller, not a love story.
Rhiannon. This name is a mouthful and not pretty on the page. It was also a red herring. I thought so many times that it was going to be the key to A's unraveling, because of its relative uniqueness (for example, when in the body of the drop-dead gorgeous girl, she tells her "brother" that she's going to spend the day with her friend Rhiannon, and another time A calls the name in a passionate kiss while he's Vic). I don't know why I had such a visceral response to this name, but I never once got used to it while reading, and that never happens to me.
Nathan. On p. 84 A reads the newspaper interview of Nathan's experience. I was disappointed that this kid, A, who cared so much not to hurt other people's lives, didn't express intense curiosity (at least to himself) about what the "other person" felt after the body kidnapping. At this point, A has never had any inkling about what the other person goes through. I thought he should have shown greater interest in Nathan's description, even if he didn't explore it. How fascinating would that be to him?!
Justin. I wanted to learn more positive things about Justin than just "Silver." Rhiannon's first encounter with A at the beginning of the book has her practically cowering, and later we see Justin downright ignoring her in the halls. It doesn't jibe with her real relationship with Justin later, which seems to have moments of decency. And then later she defends Justin and sticks with him, and Justin actually chooses not to explore a fling with a gorgeous girl. Levithan tries to skirt this issue by having A not access memories of Justin other than "Silver," and by having Justin figure out that the pretty girl is a trap, but both devices are sort of a cop out. I had no strong sense of whether Justin was bad, or a good guy with problems (what is his family like?), or a medium guy who took his girlfriend for granted. As a result, Rhiannon's growth is not as triumphant for me as it could be. I know how I was supposed to feel, but the pieces weren't lined up perfectly enough for me.