Eva and Addie started out the same way as everyone else—two souls woven together in one body, taking turns controlling their movements as they learned how to walk, how to sing, how to dance. But as they grew, so did the worried whispers. Why aren’t they settling? Why isn’t one of them fading? The doctors ran tests, the neighbors shied away, and their parents begged for more time. Finally Addie was pronounced healthy and Eva was declared gone. Except, she wasn’t…
For the past three years, Eva has clung to the remnants of her life. Only Addie knows she’s still there, trapped inside their body. Then one day, they discover there may be a way for Eva to move again. The risks are unimaginable–hybrids are considered a threat to society, so if they are caught, Addie and Eva will be locked away with the others. And yet…for a chance to smile, to twirl, to speak, Eva will do anything.
-synopsis and cover art courtesy of goodreads
Atmospheric Analysis: This cover is a bit fashion mag for my tastes–and the model pictured looks nothing like the heavily freckled Addie. But it’s a solid cover to attract an adult cross-over audience. The colors are understated, and it’s not too embarrassing.
Planetary Class: Alt-history with a metaphysical twist.
Viability Rating: The world of What’s Left of Me is predicated on the impossible: that souls have been proven to exist. This alone means the world stands on fairly shaky ground. If you accept the basic premise, then Zhang does a good job of chasing it to its logical conclusions. One area is under-developed, however: religion. Since the His Dark Materials series, there’s yet to be a YA novel that accepts the existence of souls but also explores what would be the unavoidable ramifications to religion and religious identity. Zhang sidesteps this issue here, and while the rest of her universe is still very solid, the absence of religious exploration is really strongly felt.
Mohs Scale: Zhang’s world is ours, with one major exception–souls exist, and each person is born with two. In light of that, I’d rate it as a 4 on the Mohs scale, one big lie.
Xenolinguisical Assessment: Efficient with occasional embellishments, Zhang’s writing is nicely crafted and unobtrusive. She’s an accomplished prose artist.
Expanded Report: It’s rare that I find YA comp titles to be accurate. Many are pitched as “x meets y!” or “x for teenagers!” when neither title x nor why have anything but the most superficial similarities to the novel in question. What’s Left of Me, however, has already drawn comparisons to both His Dark Materials and Never Let Me Go–and for once, the comparisons are apt! What’s Left of Me bears some conceptual similarities to The Golden Compass and its sequels, in that it explores a world where souls are known to exist. As in The Golden Compass, these souls are very different from ours (namely, each person is born with two). But the comparison to Never Let Me Go is even more appropriate. Both novels are set in alternate versions of our own world. Both feature striking, somewhat spare prose and a melancholy tone. And both are quite lovely books.
What’s Left of Me is the story of Eva, a recessive soul trapped inside a body shared with a girl named Addie. In Eva’s world, each person is born with two consciousnesses who alternate control of their body until, around age six, the recessive twin fades away. But Eva never has. Her parents take her to doctors and specialists, desperate to avoid the presence of a “hybrid” child in their family. Finally, around age 12, Eva simply decides to let Addie take control–despite the fact that she’s very much still alive.
This means that for most of the novel, Eva narrates without truly interacting. She can speak to Addie, and she can speak to us, but she’s a prisoner, really, in her body. Zhang handles this interesting perspective well. Her prose is very well-controlled. Later in the story, when the perspective shifts to first person from third, it’s both very intentional and very meaningful.
What’s Left of Me is generally a thoughtful book. It seems to be primarily a novel about identity politics. There’s a running subtext about growing up as a member of a minority group in America; Zhang doesn’t avoid hard racial questions, and she doesn’t dodge the fact that Addie and Eva have an easier life than some in this world because they are white. But there’s also a persistent thread about growing up closeted, one which is fully explored by the novel’s conclusion. In the novel’s second half, the girls are forced to undergo medical treatment in a hospital that bears some resemblance to “ex-gay” therapy that some children are forced to undergo in our own world.
But Zhang doesn’t let her characters suffer for all this thematic complexity. Both Eva and Addie are very well-wrought characters, and their relationship is a thorny as any real-life sisterly bond. There are jealousies and romances and Zhang wonderfully explores the way her universe’s rules change both jealousy, and romance. The question of consent is present here (what if you want to kiss a boy but your other soul doesn’t?), and Zhang declines to give us any easy answers. Heady, thoughtful stuff.
That’s not to say the novel is perfect: Eva generally read much younger than 15 to me; religious exploration is conspicuously absent in a universe where souls are confirmed real; I was sometimes a little hazy on the history of Zhang’s America. But overall? This is a complex, sophisticated book–a satisfying answer to more pedestrian YA.