Review of (Re)cycler by Lauren McLaughlin
by Lauren McLaughlin
Somebody told me you had a boyfriend Who looked like a girlfriend That I had in February of last year
That’s not from (Re)cycler; that’s a Killers quotation. But it’s apt for the plot of this book: Jill, who for four days of the month is Jack, moves to New York. As she tries to get used to independence and figure out who she wants to be, shenangians ensue. Soon tensions run high as Jack and Jill make mistakes, push their boundaries, and generally screw up over and over. Because that’s what young adults do. Lauren McLaughlin once again delivers a smart gender-fluid comedy couched as a young adult novel.
I’m really torn here. On the one hand, I absolutely love the premise and story in (Re)cycler and think it’s almost certainly superior to Cycler. On the other hand, there are parts of this book that make it feel … incomplete. The way Tommy gets sidelined, and the lack of resolution at the end of the story, make the narrative problematic in a structural sense. And as far as character development goes, I loved the way Jack and Jill change, and I appreciate the glimpse into how their parents are dealing with the new status quo. I wish, however, that McLaughlin had dedicated more time to the deteroriation of Jill and Ramie’s relationship.
Welcome to New York. I had that Taylor Swift song stuck in my head for this entire novel, but that is beside the point. Or is it? Anyway, it has apparently been waiting for you. And Jill.
She and Ramie are hitting the Big Apple like nobody’s business, in that they have moved into the third floor of a sketchy house in the part of Brooklyn that’s just shy of being upscale but is where all the sons and daughters of the affluent hang out when they want to pretend they’re slumming it on daddy’s dime.
Jill seems kind of aimless for most of the book, because she has no job and no educational obligations. She temps in between transforming into Jack, and on Ramie’s urging she also does some half-hearted boy-chasing. She tries to make a friend in Natalie, their downstairs neighbour, but really Jack capitalizes on that. In fact, it’s fair to say that Jack has a more prominent role in (Re)cycler. That’s not to minimize what Jill goes through, but after an entire book in which Jack is essentially regarded as an interloper, it’s cool to see him getting more of the stage.
The main theme crystallized by these plots is simply that life is much bigger than the small town of Winterhead. New York is probably the most extreme way to teach that to Jack and Jill and Ramie, but it works. McLaughlin constantly juxtaposes the metropolitan atmosphere of their new city with reminders of the small-town mindset they used to inhabit: Jill’s near-OTP obsession with Tommy, her parents’ attitudes and sartorial styles, and Ramie’s burgeoning ladycrush on Marguerite. Jill struggles with “putting herself out there” on the “market” for dating, if you will, and has all sorts of hang-ups about trying to “get rid of” her virginity. Meanwhile, Jack realizes that he sucks at making friends, because he literally had never left the house until very recently.
I love the different gender dynamics that McLaughlin portrays and questions here. Jack of all people gets to be the feminist one, pointing out to Ian Larson and his gang why the whole charting and girl-trading thing is, you know, horrible. The fact that Ian doesn’t really “get” why this is problematic at first just speaks to the way in which the patriarchy harms boys and men. It’s not that there’s something inherently pervy about boys—they are socialized, just as girls are socialized, to behave in certain ways. Ian feels the need to boast about and chronicle his sexual accomplishments to fit in with the guys.
Similarly, Jill isn’t sure how she wants to portray herself. On her own in New York Jill has trouble standing out, mostly because she is ambivalent about “cheating” on Tommy. When she finds a role model in Natalie—who seems so much more sophisticated than fey Ramie—Jill has to walk the imaginary line between “slut” and “vamp” through fashion and flirtation. Natalie’s “you are the commodity” speech is reminscient of Jill’s mother’s views.
Basically, (Re)cycler offers a rare dual glimpse into how young men and women both struggle to define themselves and explore their sexuality in a society hellbent on defining, pigeonholing, and policing their behaviours. To an extent I wish McLaughlin had taken things further. It’s difficult to do these topics justice in a book so brief.
Indeed, this is a great ride while it lasts, but it comes to an abrupt stop. I can appreciate not wanting to wrap up all the loose ends, but McLaughlin literally leaves most of the plots wide open and hanging (with no sign of a third book in sight). Will Jill and Ramie make up? Will Jack and Ramie make up? After being absent for the entire book, will Tommy do anything? I don’t know. I don’t have strong feelings about any of those questions—I like how McLaughlin has endangered Ramie’s relationships with both protagonists; sometimes friendships wither when transplanted to new environments. But the ending is so jarring I turned the page and literally wondered if my edition had a misprint that was missing a concluding chapter.
(Re)cycler continues the excellent storytelling and characterization that I loved in Cycler. Once again, McLaughlin depicts teenagers who are smart, inquisitive, but so often flawed, fallible, and wrong. I don’t know if I liked it less or more than the first book, and I don’t think it really matters. Both are clever young adult novels that deftly deal with issues of gender, sex, and relationships.