The narrator of this story, identified only as “A,” is a sixteen-year-old who wakes up every day in a different body, living a different person’s life. There are a few parameters: the person is always the same age as A is, and lives within the same limited geographical area. Other than that — gender, language, ethnic background, interests — everything changes for A, every day. A retains all his own memories and personality, but is also able to tap into the memories of the person he’s inhabiting. And A has lived like this for 16 years and become used to it, never seriously considering a different kind of life — until the morning A wakes up in Justin’s body and falls in love with Justin’s girlfriend Rhiannon.
Suddenly A understands the appeal of living in the same body every day. He comes back to visit Rhiannon in a variety of different guises and eventually makes her understand his situation. Rhiannon feels a kinship with A, but it’s understandably difficult for her to wrap her mind around being in love with someone who looks different every time she meets them.
I had to read this book after my son Chris read and liked it, because I’ve thought of that concept for a story before, and the idea has always fascinated me. (My idea was a bit different: rather than a single person, I imagined setting a story on a whole planet of people who could change bodies, gender, hair colour, appearance as easily as we change clothes. The measure of how well someone knew you, in that society, would of course be how easily they recognized you in different bodies). The concept, which Levithan has explored far more deftly than I ever would have been able to (which is why I never pursued it as a story idea) cuts to the heart of human relationships — how central is the body, the physical self, to our sense of identity and our relationships with others. If you stripped away everything that defines me physically, would I be, in any sense, still “me”? A, in this story, certainly has a strong and clear sense of identity despite not having a body to call his own.
I’ve been referring to A using male pronouns for convenience because when we first meet A he’s in a male body, Justin’s body. But to do this somewhat violates the spirit of the story, because A has no sense of gender, not having a human body with a consistent set of sexual organs. Gender, to A, is as fluid as hair colour. This comfort with the fluidity of gender is one of the reasons some more conservative readers (and parents) may be uncomfortable with this book. A is surprised that Rhiannon is not attracted in the same way when A shows up in a girl’s body (though in fact, the body she has the most difficulty accepting is that of a morbidly obese boy with indifferent hygeine). Also, of the many teen dating relationships in the novel, the only happy and secure ones seem to be those featuring gay, lesbian or transgendered teens — I’m not sure Levithan (who is gay and has explored same-sex love stories in his other young adult fiction) wrote it this way intentionally, but he is certainly interested in challenging readers’ assumptions about gender identity being an inextricable part of our selfhood.
Levithan, using A’s first-person voice, very quickly brings us into the story and up to speed on A’s unique situation. The story has the feeling of a tragedy — a sort of speculative-fiction Romeo and Juliet, almost — because it’s so impossible to imagine any kind of happy ending that will allow A and Rhiannon to be together. Along the way, Levithan deftly exposes two contradictory truths: All of us, like A, are who we are regardless of how we appear; at the same time, while we may say that we love someone else regardless of outward appearance, it’s hard to disentangle love of the person from love of the body in which we encounter them. One might think that in real life, without people like A around, this isn’t a problem we need to worry much about, but in fact it’s a central problem of human existence. I thought about this the other day at the post office as I watched a man with quite major facial disfigurement — the kind that usually comes from having been badly burned — mailing letters alongside an attractive woman who behaved as if she was his wife or girlfriend. Did he have this face when she met him, I wondered? Or did she adapt to the change? Bodies change — through illness, through accident, and inevitably over time. What happens, then, to love?
Those are some pretty deep questions, and David Levithan uses what might otherwise just seem like a quirky high-concept story idea to explore them in a beautiful and heartbreaking way.