On Gender and Genre

The Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeI’ve been in a book club with some friends from college for a few years now, and a couple of months back we had a discussion about whether or not certain books could be considered “girl books” or “boy books”. The discussion was inspired by The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which my friend Aaron argued was more of a “girl book” than he would have liked to read.

Our book club – largely composed of women (and librarians, to boot) – ultimately did not agree with Aaron’s assessment, but the concept of books that are only appealing to a specific gender is not a new one. The romance genre, for example, is one that is traditionally considered targeted towards women, but it isn’t the only one. There are also sub-genres like books about shopping, cozy mysteries or anything involving quilts that are stereotypically female. Some, but not all, of these books exist under the designation of “chick lit”, a marketing term designed to simultaneously alienate men and patronize women.

However, when you try to turn it around and consider books “for men”, there isn’t a corresponding umbrella term. I would imagine that genres like military fiction, epic fantasy and hard scifi are considered stereotypically male, as are books about no-nonsense action heroes or middle-aged men reminiscing about sex, but I feel certain there are women who read and enjoy all of those genres. Surely even the “fond memories of vagina” genre has its female readers.

So what, then, does it actually mean when someone refers to a book as “chick lit” or “for women”? People have a habit of confusing genres with reading levels or target audiences. Young adult fiction is another case in point. Maybe what someone actually means when they say they think a book is too girly is that they don’t like or understand the book’s genre. More likely is that they haven’t read the right book or books in that genre. Ultimately, though, it all seems to come down to the marketing.

Literary fiction, for example, is a genre that likes to believe it isn’t one, and if a “romance” novel is marketed as literary fiction, it will probably reach a wider audience and gain more respect. In fact, I’ve read a number of books that were essentially romance novels sold under another name. For example, Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is sold as fantasy but has a very strong romantic/erotic plot line. It’s also a fantastic book that I would recommend highly to readers looking for something a bit different. The Time-Traveler’s Wife is sold as literary fiction but has elements of both scifi and romance.

My good experiences with young adult books and “stealth” romance novels lead me to believe that there must be books I’d enjoy that are marketed as romance novels. If it’s simply a matter of being embarrassed to be seen holding the cover in public, then reading the ebook is an easy solution. I’m starting to suspect that I could find a book I would enjoy in every genre if I just knew where to look.

Every Day by David Levithan

Published: August 28th, 2012
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 336 pages

Note: The narrator of Every Day is essentially genderless, but for simplicity’s sake I use male pronouns throughout this review.

David Levithan is an interesting standout in the young adult / fiction world. He seems more than willing to experiment with storytelling forms; his previous book, The Lover’s Dictionary, chronicled the ups and downs of a relationship through alternately hilarious and painful entries in a dictionary. His new book, Every Day, is more traditional in form, but still full of the same thrillingly out-there ideas that I loved about his previous work.

Every Day’s premise is simple but striking; what if you woke up every day in a new body and a new place? Some essence of your self – your soul, some ineffable store of memory – survives the jump from body to body, which gives you continuity of identity, but you also have access to the memories of your “host” so that you can pass unnoticed in their life. How would it feel to look out from different eyes every day, experiencing the world from an infinite number of perspectives? More importantly, what would happen if, one day, you fell in love… and couldn’t let go?

A, the narrator of Levithan’s story, wakes up one morning in the body of Justin, a sullen teenage boy who doesn’t take care of himself, doesn’t get along well with his parents and mistreats his girlfriend. A usually tries not to interfere with the lives of his hosts – who seem to match the age he would be if he lived normally – but something about Justin’s relationship with his girlfriend, Rhiannon, makes him decide to try and improve her day. They skip school and go to the beach… and A falls in love. After that, A spends each successive day trying to find Rhiannon, working to get to know her and eventually revealing his body-jumping secret.

Levithan plays with some fascinating philosophical concepts throughout. Once A reveals his identity to Rhiannon, the major question becomes: how exactly do you have a relationship with someone who isn’t in the same body twice? A, who grew up unsurprisingly open-minded after experiencing life through the eyes of every possible type of person, feels like there shouldn’t be anything keeping them apart, but Rhiannon isn’t quite so ready to live outside the norms. For example, A notices that she isn’t quite as receptive when he is in the body of a girl or someone who isn’t traditionally attractive. Late in the book, the question arises of what it would mean if A and Rhiannon had sex in one of his host bodies, since it has been made clear that the hosts do remember vague details of their lives the next day. All of these complications make A’s story poignantly tragic, and the romance compellingly star-crossed.

A’s experiences vary wildly from day to day. One particularly harrowing experience involves a day spent in the body of a habitual drug user going through withdrawal; another centers on a girl who is planning to commit suicide. A is almost always understanding and open-minded about the lives of the people he inhabits, although he does admit early on that he doesn’t necessarily like everyone whose life he takes over. The only real false note in the book comes on a day when A inhabits the body of an extremely overweight boy. A refers to him as “the emotional equivalent of a burp” and it seems strangely judgmental by comparison.

The author also introduces a subplot about a boy named Nathan who gets in trouble with his parents after A controls his life one night. When Nathan comes home after curfew, he blames his behavior on demonic possession. Eventually the story gets picked up by the national news and a shady evangelical preacher starts asking more of the “possessed” to come forward. Nathan remembers enough about his experience to get in touch with A through his secret email account, and tries to convince A to reveal his true nature. Although this storyline does add some tension to the mix, I felt like the book didn’t necessarily need it. Every Day largely focuses on the romance between A and Rhiannon, so when a late reveal implies that the story might slip into thriller territory or start exploring explanations for the body-jumping mythology, it doesn’t quite fit. Luckily Levithan avoids straying too far down that path.

That isn’t to say I wouldn’t be curious to know more about the cause of A’s body-jumping experiences, and the book definitely ends on a note that would leave Levithan wide open to write a sequel if he chose to. I’d definitely read it, but I imagine it would need to be a very different book, simply because it would only diminish this book to try and repeat the romantic storyline.

All in all, I highly recommend Every Day. It’s a quick read full of powerful emotional moments and thought-provoking ideas, and I definitely look forward to seeing what Levithan comes up with next.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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