Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers
“I have learned how to observe, far better than most people observe. I am not blinded by the past or motivated by the future. I focus on the present, because that is where I’m destined to live.”
— A, on how to make it through a day in someone else’s life
This review is going to be a little… complicated. I can’t refer to A as he or she, since A is neither, so you may have to bear with me a little in that regard. As you can already tell, A is a very unique narrator for a novel. No home, no history, no friends, nothing. A doesn’t go to a single school or have a single religion. A will never have a steady job because A constantly moves from one life to the next. It happens at midnight, usually while A is asleep (the few times A has been awake at midnight, it’s been painful enough to avoid in the future). A will go to sleep in one body, and wake up ‘borrowing’ another. A has the memories and history of the host – names of family, friends, where the host needs to be and obligations required of them – enough to make it through a day in the life. Other more esoteric things like language are harder. A can’t access the memories of a foreign-language speaker fast enough to be fluent, so conversation with a Spanish family is spotty at best.
A has very strict self-imposed rules to keep the ‘possession’ undiscovered. A insists on following the host’s life as normally as possible. Through memories and observing others, A gets an idea of what’s expected and adjusts accordingly. Sometimes A will feign an illness to avoid something that requires talent (a music recital, for instance), but A’s unique education provided enough knowledge that A can fake the host’s way through pretty much any test that is given.
The rule of non-interference is tested when A meets Rhiannon, the girlfriend of A’s host. A’s powers of observation allow insight to Rhiannon’s sadness and desperation to be loved and treated right, so A is inspired to break the rules for the first time just to make her smile. A wants to give her the boyfriend she deserves, even if he’ll go back to normal the following day.
“I have wandered so long without any sense of purpose, and now this ephemeral purpose has been given to me – it feels like it has been given to me. I only have one day to give – so why can’t it be a good one?”
A uses Justin’s body to take Rhiannon to the beach, and to give her “one good day.” A’s initial plan is just to make Rhiannon smile, but it quickly becomes apparent it’s more than that. A goes to bed and, as always, wakes up in another body in the morning. But the memory of Rhiannon won’t go away. A has an e-mail address that was created to give some semblance of continuity to A’s existence, and begins using it to save memories of Rhiannon so they won’t fade like other memories and lives have.
Eventually, A starts using hosts to slip back into Rhiannon’s life unobserved, acting as a stranger each time just to be with her. Soon A’s feelings are too strong to ignore. The headiness of first love and a need for some kind of connection lead A to break the biggest rule of them all and reveal the truth to someone else.
I’m sure that I would be making the comparison to Quantum Leap even if I hadn’t signed up to write about that show for one of this issue’s other sections. The idea of someone slipping unnoticed into another person’s life, going through the motions, trying not to get discovered, screams Sam Beckett. The difference is that there’s no motive behind A’s changing. A doesn’t arrive to save a life or stop a tragedy… A just is. There’s no origin or explanation, no story about where A came from (although near the end of the book there are hints of a larger story yet untold). A is simply a sixteen-year-old kid trying to make it through life. Like every other teenager out there.
Throughout the book, A jumps into a variety of different people: boys, girls, white, black, gay, straight. A is a kid from a sheltered family, where no one really cares what A does or where A goes. At one point A mentions being a blind girl for a day, which would have been very interesting to actually investigate in the book. All of the different people are treated with equal amounts of compassion and with a streamline “these people are all basically the same”, with one exception. The day A spends inside of an overweight boy seemed unnecessarily judgmental. Across other nationalities, races, and sexual orientations, A takes the changes in stride. But almost immediately upon waking up fat, there’s a derisiveness that I found off-putting. Countering the “this is normal” of other bodies, A considers the weight to be a choice and seems to hold it against the host to an unusual degree.
This section is full of A’s judgment on his host: “It takes so much more effort to do anything. Because this is not muscular heaviness. No, I’m fat. Flabby, unwieldy fat,” and “His size comes from negligence and laziness, a carelessness that would be pathological if it had any meticulousness to it.” In A’s email to Rhiannon before they meet, he warns her and says “I am huge today.” The compassion and equality that filled the other host’s lives evaporates and is replaced by an unseemly disgust.
Giving the book the benefit of the doubt, this is from the point of view of a sixteen year-old kid who has just fallen in love for the first time and is worried about how the object of their affection will react. But A has been jumping from body to body since birth. A’s behavior smacks here of a body image and vanity that A shouldn’t have. And Rhiannon, who was willing to kiss another girl so long as it was A, wasn’t even willing to hold A’s hand when the host was overweight. The message I got from the section compared to the rest of the book is that fat people are the last group it’s okay to discriminate against.
I also had a bit of an issue with how quickly A fell for Rhiannon. After sixteen years of basic non-interference, a girl shows up and the rules instantly fly out the window. A instantly focuses on her with the obsessive drive of a stalker, running to the computer each morning to find out how far away they are. The relationship steadied after the first initial awkwardness, and given A’s “situation” there really isn’t time for a real slow-burn type of relationship to form, but it still felt like a very Romeo and Juliet sort of insta-lust. And again, I think some of that can be attributed to the attraction beginning while A was inhabiting the body of a teenage boy. Twu Wuv can bloom in a sixteen year-old’s heart in the time it takes an adult to yawn.
As I neared the end of the book, there were shades that the author was making an underhanded attempt to leave a cliffhanger for a potential Book 2. It seems more books are trying to get away with that these days, offering up portions of stories that will be continued in future installments. Fortunately the author steers into the turn and manages to salvage the story by giving it a solid ending. There are two other books in the series, Another Day and Six Earlier Days, but neither are sequels (one is a disappointing companion novel, the other a prequel). But as it stands, the original book comes to a satisfying conclusion.
Despite this being “for Young Adults,” and the stigma that label has with more mature readers, I’ll give this a recommendation to anyone who spent their high school years trying to figure out who they were. Even if the start of the relationship was abrupt, the scenes of A hurrying to get a glimpse of Rhiannon in the hallway between classes will ring true to anyone who fell in love with someone just because of how they stood by their locker.