David Levithan’s Every Day is a book recommendation that came to me from overhearing a conversation between a shopper and an employee at one of my favorite small bookstores. If there was any lesson I took from this, it’s not to eavesdrop and not to trust the recommendations of people who don’t know you or your tastes (or, for that matter, aren’t recommending the thing to you specifically). (Okay, that’s two lessons. An educational experience all around.)
In any case, I knew vaguely of David Levithan from being co-author of things like Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (I don’t recall ever having finished reading this novel, but I’m pretty sure I did, and I know I saw the movie) and Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares. Every Day loosely dances on the line of being SFF, since conceptually it’s about an individual who wakes up every day (aha!) in the body of a different person. But then in the very first day we see, our protagonists meets Rhiannon, and it instantaneously becomes an entity-meets-girl story, and sacrifices any bit of interesting it had going for it in the pursuit of a lackluster romance between a dull girl and a slightly villainous gender-neutral being. Spoilers to follow…
So our protagonist has been jumping from body to body every day since birth. He/she doesn’t know if he/she is a boy or girl (sometimes feeling like a boy, sometimes feeling like a girl, sometimes neither, and does it matter much if you don’t get to choose what you wake up with?), so he/she refers to themselves as A. That was a very complicated sentence to write out, and I apologize to my seventh-grade English teacher for not actually paying attention when it came time for us to learn the sorts of things that would make it make sense. In any case, the gender neutrality works well on the page. The guidelines of A’s quantum-leaping work simply: A jumps at midnight, regardless of whether or not the body is awake; it only lasts twenty-four hours; A only jumps between bodies the same age as A’s own, and within a loose geographic radius. (For example, if the body A is in leaves Michigan, A will no longer be jumping bodies in Michigan, but in whatever town the body falls asleep in that night.)
The “story” starts with A landing in the body of Justin, theoretically our antagonist (at the very least, the rival for Rhiannon’s love), who is in a relationship with the not-terribly-engaging Rhiannon, who is “different”. Rhiannon, while not bland, is not a particularly compelling character. The problem with all of the getting-to-know-you sessions she and A engage in is that they’re done in summary (as in, “she told me this fun story”). Really, you’re going to tell and not show? Rookie move, I’m barely hanging on here as it is. Rhiannon is slow to come to terms with the idea that her secret almost-lover is never going to be in the same body twice, which is understandable, but then she’s all hands on deck, and there’s no real reason why, beyond an uninspired “seeing something” in A’s eyes or whatever. Besides that, A isn’t that interesting, either. Because A spends every day in a different body, A doesn’t seem to develop much personality of his/her own, just the odd references here and there to wanting their own family, or using these jumps to find new music to like. You want me to relate to you. Be relateable.
Every Day is problematic in a lot of ways. It introduces a handful of interesting but unresolved threads of story, many of which are in the vein of patting itself on the back for being some kind of Social Justice pioneer. It reminds us that there are teenage illegals working as maids, but A’s only reaction is that it’s sad because it means there’s no internet access with which A can email Rhiannon. On the one hand, I suppose it’s different that A Message isn’t being drummed into our heads, but I’d rather the Message than this I-guess-this-is-tragic-nothing-I-can-do casual dismissal in favor of A’s overwhelming teen love for Rhiannon. It gets a little more tolerable when A is in the body of a girl who is severely, suicidally depressed, and takes action, but the action is only taken with Rhiannon’s advice and nudging. A claims to be so mired in the idea of keeping the bodies’ lives pristine and untouched, but while that might have been true in the 5000-odd days before the novel started, it is a blatant lie at this point.
A will complain or sympathize, or very rarely empathize with whatever plight affects the body A is currently in (whether it’s being blind, being obese, being gay, or being overworked), but ultimately it means nothing, because A doesn’t do anything. A suffers for a day and then moves on, claiming it a transformative experience that may or may not be remembered. Sure, one can’t be expected to remember every single day of one’s life, and it’s easy to block out things when they’re part of routine, but the only routine A is adjusting to is the jumping. A has clearly set themselves up as an individual who purposefully does not take action, so as to absolve themselves when things like the depressed girl happen (sure, she was obviously suicidal, but what could A, a helpless stranger, do in a day?), but then throws that all out the window to take stupid, reckless action for the sake of a girl.
This premise, this inexplicable body-jumping would be lovely as a SFF story. Perhaps with some kind of origin story, or more than the barest grazing of facts about the rules and limitations of this type of existence. Or an idea of an endgame. Instead, the interesting parts of the story get buried in the greater love story, which is bland. Rhiannon isn’t particularly interesting, and while there is a lure of forbidden romance, A is basically a stalker.
And therein lies the rub. A is our protagonist, but A is no hero. For all of the purported progressiveness in this gender-neutral relationship, A falls into the category of all crappy significant others (or would-be significant others) that came before him/her. Only worse: the Edward Cullens of the world will break into your room to watch you sleep, but A does it in the body of a stranger. (For what it’s worth, I am sorry to drop Twilight in here as the pinnacle of all bad things, as while it’s probably not far from the truth, it is cliche and a bit unfair – but let us never forget Edward climbed uninvited into Bella’s room and watched her sleep. Repeatedly.) Imagine finding out your boyfriend, the guy you’ve been kissing on a blanket all afternoon, is not actually your boyfriend, but some foreign entity inhabiting the person you’ve come to know and love. Or worse: imagine waking up with yesterday being a blur and discovering later you did something reckless and crazy that you didn’t do, wouldn’t do. A essentially kidnaps these people when A goes on joyrides to visit/stalk Rhiannon. That first session, where A takes Amy’s body and goes off to fake being a prospective student at Rhiannon’s school. Next, A uses Nathan’s body to go to a party and dance with Rhiannon. All of this is designed to spend as much time with Rhiannon as possible and subtly (or not) plant seeds to get her to break up with her boyfriend Justin. All without the permission, and often without the knowledge, of the vessels A is using to accomplish this obnoxious goal. (To Rhiannon’s credit, she points out on occasion that A is being kind of an asshole in this treatment of other people’s bodies and lives. It’s her one shining moment, later replaced by her distaste for wanting to kiss or touch A when A is in anything less than a conventionally attractive teenage boy. A girl? Nuh-uh. An obese kid? Not even.)
(Also, it’s worth noting somewhere in here that Justin isn’t really bad. He’s not the Best Boyfriend Ever, true: he wants to have sex when Rhiannon wants to make love, he comes across as a little dismissive and disinterested, but he’s not an outright dick, nor is he abusive. He’s bored, not a monster. A isn’t really ‘saving’ Rhiannon from anything. If she wants to be in a crappy teenage romance, so be it. A even acknowledges that at least once upon a time, there was genuine affection towards Rhiannon on Justin’s part.)
And here’s where it gets engaging (and then quickly stops being engaging): embodying Nathan leads to an actual, real consequence, and an actual, real plot point. A doesn’t make it back to Nathan’s house in time for the midnight body transfer, leaving a disoriented Nathan to wake up by the side of the road, in trouble with the police and claiming demonic possession. And because A just screwed everything up that day, A also forgot to log out of his/her private email account, so now Nathan has a contact and continues to harass A, wanting to know what A is. A doesn’t know, so A basically ignores this, beyond the halfhearted insistances that A is not a demon. But Nathan sticks to the whole possession thing, eventually falling in with an “expert”-slash-priest, who, as it turns out, is actually another body-jumper like A, when Nathan tricks A into a meeting. The priest promises that there are others like himself and A, and that it’s possible to stay as long as you want in a body. That is when things get really interesting. So instead, A goes off, has a really good date with Rhiannon, and then breaks up with her and decides to leave the state in yet another body (essentially an abduction), so A can fade off and resume A’s anonymous lifestyle. I don’t even know, you guys.
So let’s recap: anything interesting that happens in this novel is an obstacle to a completely boring and predictable romance. The “you’re better off without me” abandonment at the end would be a neat twist if it wasn’t immediately followed with more kidnapping, destroying any remaining goodwill I had for a character I didn’t much like to begin with. I wanted so badly to like this, I really did. But much like A and Rhiannon, it apparently wasn’t meant to be.