Monday, June 10, 2013

Review: YOU LOOK DIFFERENT IN REAL LIFE by Jennifer Castle

For the rest of the world, the movies are entertainment. For Justine, they're real life.

The premise was simple: five kids, just living their lives. There'd be a new movie about them every five years, starting in kindergarten. But no one could have predicted what the cameras would capture. And no one could have predicted that Justine would be the star.

Now sixteen, Justine doesn't feel like a star anymore. In fact, when she hears the crew has gotten the green light to film Five at Sixteen, all she feels is dread. The kids who shared the same table in kindergarten have become teenagers who hardly know one another. And Justine, who was so funny and edgy in the first two movies, feels like a disappointment.

But these teens have a bond that goes deeper than what's on film. They've all shared the painful details of their lives with countless viewers. They all know how it feels to have fans as well as friends. So when this latest movie gives them the chance to reunite, Justine and her costars are going to take it. Because sometimes, the only way to see yourself is through someone else's eyes.
I've come to the conclusion that I don't read contemporaries the way other people do. Often I look for a great deal of external action and then feel jipped when my current contemporary meanders along, lollygagging in the Fields of Inner Monologues before taking a nap in the Forests of Relational Angst. I expect the wrong things out of my stories, and then get crabby when the stories let me down. I know this happens a lot, so when a contemporary book doesn't jive with me, I have a hard time telling if it's for legitimate reasons or not.

However, it took me a long, long time to jive with this book, and I don't think it was all me.

If I had to try to sum up the feel of You Look Different, I'd say it feels like one of those indie films. You know, the kind with the music from the band no one's heard of playing in the background, the shots with blinding flashes of golden sunlight, and everything captured on a handcam. In other words, just like the type of film it portrays. I've never really gotten into those types of films.

The focus of the story is Justine, one of five kids who are the focus of a documentary every five years. They became stars at six years old when Leslie and Lance appeared at their school, cameras in tow, and began filming every moment of their lives in what became Five at Six. Five years later, Leslie and Lance appeared again and pieced together Five at Eleven, only now the kids were old enough to somewhat realize what the films were doing to their lives. Now it's time for Five at Sixteen, and Justine wants out.

Justine used to be funny. She used to have zingers ready for the camera. Now she has nothing. Commentators online expect her to have made something of her life in the past five years. Justine, Class President! Justine, guitar virtuoso! Something. Instead, she's just an average girl with divorced parents who still sleep together, one ex-boyfriend, and exactly one friend, Felix. The other three kids ignore her. All three probably hate her. At least one has a right to.

The first half or so of the book dragged for me. The only interest I felt was in Justine's casual use of production terms. Everything in her life was described using filming terms or by saying "in Hollywood, X might happen, but we did Y. Isn't it funny how reality is so different?" Given the plot of the book, her mindset made sense and interested me, though it might bother others. However, the book in general felt very slow and solemn. It didn't provide even a moment of levity, which is something I sorely missed, and I couldn't find myself caring about any of the characters.

All of the characters, teens and adults alike, felt very desperate. They all wanted something, but I didn't know what, so I didn't invest. I also felt distanced from everyone, as if they were on one side of the lens and I was on the other. They weren't people to me. They were characters, props in a movie, and not a cool movie like Star Trek or anything.

Now these characters I can invest in!
If I read long chunks at a time, I could get myself in a sort of rhythm and almost start to care, but if I set the book aside and then came back to it for any reason, I would have to find that groove all over again. This pattern, of losing my groove and then having to hunt for it again, was very frustrating, and I nearly stopped reading. However, I'm glad I didn't.

I don't want to spoil what happens, but partway through, the dynamics change. The plodding documentary of five kids who used to be friends suddenly turns into a road trip, and instead of being filmed by meddling adults, Justine is behind the camera. For whatever reason, this change completely flipped the switch for me. With Justine suddenly in control of the story being told, I felt more connected with all five kids and the story as a whole. Everything snapped into place, bringing each kid into focus - Nate, who wants to be cool; Kiera, who wants a family; Rory, who wants a friend; Felix, who wants an identity; and Justine, who wants a place to belong. Maybe it was because by that point I was finally learning more about them, or maybe it was because Justine finally started to care. I don't know. But whatever it was, the change saved the story for me.

You Look Different still isn't my kind of story. It's not one I'll run out and buy. But it was decent, and I think it'll please many contemporary fans out there. The effect of observation on those being observed, the inherent struggle between natural and staged action in documentaries, the possible exploitation of children, and other issues are explored in this book, but at its heart, it's the story of five kids trying to get what they want.

Favorite (Non-Spoilery) Quote:
"I understand that you didn't really know what it would mean."

"Why?" he asks slowly. "What does it mean?

I shrug. "That it would change me. That instead of my life shaping a film, a film would shape my life."
Points Added For: Rory, a lovely second half, Leslie not being evil

Points Subtracted For: Ian (a bit of a throwaway character), a drag of a first half, the half-formed adults

Good For Fans Of: Indie-type contemporary novels, "in the closet" characters, road trips, documentaries

Notes For Parents: Language, homosexuality, some kissing, homosexuality, divorce, underage drinking (observed), bullying

Note: I received a digital ARC of this title from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

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