Thought-Provoking, High-Concept - You Look Different in Real Life by Jennifer Castle
This is not a soap opera, folks. This is my life.
And it is absolutely, positively as unamazing as you can get.
You Look Different in Real Life is a high concept novel, one that at face explores the experiences of five teens who are the subject of an ongoing series of Up-style documentaries, but at its core examines the way we construct identities, or identities are assigned to us.
We see this experience through the eyes of sixteen year-old Justine, accidental star of a documentary series following five classmates at six, eleven and now sixteen. Leslie and Lance, the directors, have crafted a story for these children, and they each have played into their roles. Justine is sarcastic and rebellious; Felix has been cast as the working class kid (but he also has a secret); Rory is autistic and loves Ren Fair; Keira is elegant and distant; and Nathan is the popular Golden Boy.
The fact that I go right to thinking about people a.k.a audiences makes me mad, and the fact that I don’t know how to change that makes me even madder. But what can I do?
The thing is, Justine doesn’t feel like the star anymore and has to be dragged into participating in Five at Sixteen by Felix, who dreams of being the focus of this edition of the series. As they reunite once again, the years of their lives being woven together become harder to avoid, and old pain bubbles to the surface once again.
The directors and producers of the film are frustrated once filming starts because the kids aren’t acting the way they did in the previous movies. The group dynamics are off and stories aren’t emerging like they were in the previous episodes, so they have to manufacture a few situations to bring the teens together: Nathan’s swim meet initially, and then a retreat to help them bond. As you can imagine, this doesn’t quite result in the story the filmmakers envision.
With this concept, You Look Different in Real Life could have been cliched and trite, but it's not.
Instead, Castle created a voice for narrator Justine that’s so authentic and memorable that experiencing the documentary through her eyes captivated me from the first pages. She’s snarky, self-deprecating and, well, a bit bitchy. She has complicated relationships with the other members of her family and friendships are sticky, to say the least. She reads like a real teen.
Parties are just not my thing. I tried drinking once. It messed up my stomach for two days. When you’re totally sober and everyone around you is totally not, you feel like an alien who’s landed on a planet of shouting idiots.
Through Justine’s eyes, the reader gets glimpses of who the kids were as children and who they are as young adults, how their relationships transformed and broke down. Eventually, the teens escape the cameras, and we see more of who they really are.
Keira’s face now. Her face from that scene five years ago, of pure and open devastation. THen her face at the campfire. A face that is secrets and hiding and total fear that anyone will find out what you are really thinkng and who you really are.
And herein lies the most intriguing aspect of You Look Different in Real Life.
These kids have spent years playing roles. They each have a public persona thanks to the documentary, but it also illustrates the way we live today--especially young people. How different, really, is playing a character on reality television from the way we carefully construct online personas on Facebook?
We let our “audience” see what we want them to see, which is often nothing like the reality. It’s not a stretch to say that these profiles are not much less performance than what the fictional FIve at Sixteen teens do for the cameras. Further, like Justine and her friends, so often labels and identities are assigned by others, not by the individuals themselves.
My book club read You Look Different in Real Life for our July selection and nearly everyone felt like it was a unique, thought-provoking, and ultimately uplifting, read.
The ending verges on cheesy, but because Castle makes her characters earn everything they get--and it’s not easy. The more I think about it, the more You Look Different in Real Life stands out as a memorable read of 2013 simply because it surprised me with its depth and avoidance of cliches and superficiality. If you’re looking for something a bit different, You Look Different in Real Life is one you’ll want to check out.