REVIEW: Adaptation by Malinda Lo

 

 

 

I try not to go into anything with expectations. Having no expectations that something will be good means you’re free to absorb whatever it is — a book, a movie, a TV show, a game — with fewer biases, and are less likely to be disappointed, because hey, you never expected it to be good in the first place.

On the other hand, sometimes I can’t help but get excited about something before I even read or see it. This book was an example of that. A 40 page preview was released a few months before it came out, and I read it and it was fantastic. Intense, fast-paced, action-packed, with dozens of questions set up to be answered in the rest of the book. So I was excited about that.

I also knew a bit about the author, Malinda Lo, who is a Chinese-American lesbian Young Adult writer who is known in the YA publishing community for being a wonderful voice on issues such as racial diversity and LGBTQ portrayals in YA literature. Adaptation was nominated for a Lambda award, plus I knew there would be at least one major LGBTQ character, and I was looking forward to seeing how Lo would balance that aspect with the action-adventure plot. I was really excited to read a book with an LGBTQ main character that wasn’t ABOUT being LGBTQ, but rather having that as just one element of the character and the story.

And well . . . I should have known better than to have expectations. I was unfortunately disappointed.

The opening chapters are riveting, no doubt about that. The book starts with the main character, Reese, and her high school debate partner and their coach waiting to fly home from a debate tournament, and then suddenly planes start crashing all over the country. No one knows what’s going on, all flights are grounded, people start to panic, and to top it off, all information about the plane crashes is being systematically wiped from the internet. It’s intense.

But then . . . things slow down. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need nonstop action to keep me happy as a reader. But the problem is, when the action slows down, the faults in the characterization become more apparent. I really wanted to like Reese and be invested in her story, but I felt like I didn’t have a good enough handle on who she was as a person, what makes her tick outside of direct influences from the plot, and that made it difficult to empathize with her.

Perhaps this was because there was so much frantic action in the first few chapters — it’s hard to establish personality under those circumstances. But also, Lo seems to skimp on details that aren’t directly plot-relevant. For instance, Reese and her debate partner, David, just lost a huge tournament after making it to the finals. But we never once hear what the topic of the debate was. We never once hear about any topics for any debates, which presumably there have been a lot of if they made it all the way to the finals. We never see Reese use any possible knowledge she learned in her years as a debater. Research skills, methods of arguing, reasons why Reese was so driven to succeed in this particular area, specific memories relating to previous debates — none of these are demonstrated or explored. This was frustrating to me from a character perspective. I love when female characters are given passions that have nothing to do with romance (sadly all too rare), but this passion seemed sorely underdeveloped, to the detriment of the character.

And then I had issues with the romance. Not to give too much away, but toward the middle of the novel, Reese meets a girl who makes her question her sexuality, and they begin to pursue a relationship.

As someone who has close friends who identify as bisexual or fluid and have struggled with it, I was really glad to see it represented so matter-of-factly. Unfortunately, I didn’t think highly of the romantic relationship because of the underdeveloped characterization. Romance is a great way to reveal character — you learn about what a character values, what they need, what they respond to in another person, what they connect with. Disappointingly, it seems that most of what Reese is shown to connect with in her love interest is that she’s hot, like really really hot. And flighty and adventurous in the vein of the manic pixie dreamgirl. Not much substance to the relationship at all. And I guess being able to show that hormone-driven high school relationships (cough Twilight cough) have every right to be homosexual as well as heterosexual is a good thing, but it’s not very satisfying.

So overall, I really wanted to like this book. It had a lot of good ideas and interesting elements, but the execution was lacking. There’s a sequel in the works, and I’m on the fence about whether I want to read it or not. Characterization has been known to improve over the life of a series, though, so I might give it a shot.

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