Cycler by Laura McLaughlin

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Identity, romance, controlling parents – these are tough issues for any teenager to deal with.  Turns out they all get a whole lot tougher when your body can’t decide whether you’re a boy or a girl.  Four days a month, Jill McTeague turns into Jack McTeague – and neither one of them is very happy about it.  Science can’t explain what is happening to Jill, and no one is quite sure what to do about her condition.  So instead of subjecting her to a barrage of tests and baffled scientists, Jill’s mother hides Jack away and explains Jill’s regular absences with a lie about the need for a periodic blood transfusion.  Using self-hypnosis and the constantly-repeated phrase “I am all girl,” Jill is able to erase her memories of “Jacktime,” although he sometimes communicates with her by writing notes – usually requesting porn or his preferred peanut butter.

Jill’s mother has a need to be in constant control, and her father has removed himself from their lives almost completely.  It is difficult to know which parent’s reaction to Jill’s condition is more harmful.  While her Mom does everything she can to help Jill deal with her transformation, her treatment of Jack is terrifying cold.  As the book goes on, it becomes clear that she does not see Jack as her son, and that she is absolutely willing to abuse Jack in order to keep Jill’s life in order.  While the father clearly cares about both Jack and Jill, he has no idea how to deal with the situation and turns all control over to his wife.

Since the changes began when Jill was in middle school, her mantra of “I am all girl” has spread into all parts of her life.  Jill stops playing sports, loses touch with her dad, and tries to erase anything that she identifies with boys from her life, totally paranoid that anything about her might be perceived as masculine.  This insecurity is especially interesting when the boy Jill has been crushing on – and who has been showing signs of interest – reveals that he’s bisexual.  Combined with Jack’s lust for Jill’s best friend Ramie, Cycler delivers a completely original love triangle.  Or is it a square?

Lauren McLaughlin’s plotting is so completely new, which makes up for a few of the novel’s shortcomings.  Ramie and Jill speak in their own personal slang, with the words “deeply” and “mal” used constantly in their dialogue, which is distracting and does not ring true.  And the pacing sometimes feels rushed, although I think this is because most of the novel is told from Jill’s point of view, and Jill has a very limited capacity for self-reflection.  Jack does not block out Jill’s experiences from his memory, and that is part of what makes him a much more compelling character.  Jill is so terrified of associating herself with Jack that she will not reflect on any part of her life.  Like her mother, she makes constant plans to control Jill’s (and Jack’s) life.  And like her mother’s plans, they often come with unintended consequences.

This review is cross-posted at The Well-Read Child.

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