Author: Gordon Dahlquist
Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopia, Young Adult
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Publication Date: February 2013
Hardcover: 240 Pages
Four nearly identical girls on a desert island. An unexpected new arrival. A gently warped near future where nothing is quite as it seems.
Veronika. Caroline. Isobel. Eleanor. One blond, one brunette, one redhead, one with hair black as tar. Four otherwise identical girls who spend their days in sync, tasked to learn. But when May, a very different kind of girl—the lone survivor of a recent shipwreck—suddenly and mysteriously arrives on the island, an unsettling mirror is about to be held up to the life the girls have never before questioned.
Sly and unsettling, Gordon Dahlquist’s timeless and evocative storytelling blurs the lines between contemporary and sci-fi with a story that is sure to linger in readers’ minds long after the final page has been turned.
Stand alone or series: Standalone Novel
How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print ARC
Why did I read this book: Superficially, the cover and title caught my eye immediately – I saw this book at NY Comic Con last year and immediately gravitated to it. Then, when I found out what the book was actually about, I was even more intrigued.
On a small tropical island in the middle of the ocean, Veronika lives with three other girls and two caretakers. The four girls are the exact same size and weight and age, distinguished by their different hair – Isobel with her lemon yellow hair, Caroline with her coconut brown hair, Eleanor with her black hair the color of wet tar, and Veronika with her rust red locks. Every day, Veronika and the other girls go on walks to observe and report back their findings to Irene and Robbert – two adults who look after the girls after their parents died in a plane crash – asking questions about what they’ve seen and learned. Every day follows the same pattern: wake up, go to class and ask questions, prepare dinner, sing, and sleep.
One day during her assigned walk, Veronika discovers something different – a girl lying in the sand that looks nothing like Veronica and the others. This mysterious girl has dark freckled skin and tangled long hair. As she wakes up, Veronika learns that this girl is the victim of a shipwreck and her name is May – and May is like Irene and Robbert with her soft skin and flesh and blood. May is different in other ways, too – she acts without thinking and considering, and she lashes out at Veronika and the others in fear and anger at times.
May’s arrival means more for Veronika, the other girls, and their caretakers – others have discovered their island home and are coming for them all.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started reading The Different Girl – the description makes the book sound like a familiar dystopian YA setup. Jaded as I am, I half expected this book to be about a group of (beautiful and innocent, of course) cloned girls, brainwashed and jolted into awareness of their prison by the arrival of an outsider (with a tepid insta-love romance thrown in there at some point). Thankfully, this is decidedly NOT the case.
Narrated in the stunning and perceptive first person point of view of Veronika, The Different Girl is, well…different. In a very, very good way. This is a true science fiction novel, about what it means to be alive – to be a “girl” – and the world in which these particular girls live. It’s a challenging and refreshingly subtle read, filtered through Veronika’s own focused and distinct observations. And because of this, it’s the kind of book in which information is revealed very slowly, only gradually revealing the full picture. I’m trying my very best not to spoil, because this is the kind of read that depends on the reader making these observations and discoveries throughout – suffice it to say that when you start this book, it’s best NOT to know too much about Veronika and her sisters.
From a stylistic and character perspective, I love Gordon Dahlquist’s decision to tell this particular story from Veronika’s point of view. The obvious narrative choice would be the newcomer May’s viewpoint, and through her perspective we’d probably learn so much more (e.g. exactly WHAT Veronika and the girls are, the state of this post-apocalyptic world, etc) in point-blank fashion. In contrast, Veronika has only ever known the island and the routine she and the other girls undergo each day, the questions and tests she runs through each day, and the incomplete information about the past that she has been given by Irene and Robbert. May’s arrival sparks something new and different within Veronika, and we see her thoughts and actions subtly change as she accommodates the new information brought in May’s wake. I love the camaraderie that exists between Veronika and the other girls, the layered relationship between Veronika and her caretakers (Irene with her warmth, and in contrast Robbert with his frustrations and his demanding questions), and most of, the tension between Veronika and May.
While Veronika’s narrative is stilted and focused on strange minutia, it’s also wonderfully written and believable – I loved every second of Veronika’s thoughts, we we readers glean little nuggets of information about her and her world as she learns. I love the tone of the writing, too, with its strange and stilted voice and Veronika’s inherent unreliablility – she’s not unreliable because she’s lying to herself or to others, but because she is a very different kind of girl, and focuses only the information that she needs for the task or question at hand. I should also note that while we do get answers to some of the questions posed by the text and gradually see more of the larger picture, there are plenty of questions that are left unanswered – in my opinion, this is a good thing and I like the intentional vagueness and open-ended nature of The Different Girl (that said, your mileage may vary).
In short, I loved this book. The more I think about it, the more I love it. I love that this is a quieter novel about thoughts and characters, without much of a driving forward plot but plenty of food for thought. In many ways, The Different Girl reminds me of Genesis by Bernard Beckett (one of my favorite SF dystopian novels, ever) – both are shorter novels, but packed with ideas and challenging questions and complex relationships. The Different Girl is both a frustrating and rewarding read, and one that is refreshingly unique compared to the sea of bland softball sci-fi dystopia novels on the YA market today. Absolutely recommended – and in the running for one of my notable reads of 2013.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
We kept singing until Irene said that was enough, and we watched the sunset until it was dark. Irene poured her last cup of tea and told us to get ready for sleep. We helped one another untie our smocks and fold them. We climbed onto our cots and waited for Irene to turn out the lights.
After five minutes she still hadn’t come. Caroline turned to me and whispered. “What did Robbert say?”
“He wanted to know why I asked why we went on different walks.”
“What did you say?”
“I said I was sorry.”
“But you’re not sorry,” Eleanor whispered, from my other side. “Because I’m not sorry, either.”
I nodded. I don’t think I was ever sorry, really.
“What did he say?” whispered Caroline.
“He said it was a good question.”
Everyone thought about that. Isobel whispered, from the other side of Caroline. “It is a good question.” We all nodded and thought the same thing she said next. “That means they don’t know what we’re going to learn, either.”
We heard Irene and stopped whispering. She came in, turned out the light, and bent over each of our cots in turn. First Isobel, then Caroline, then Eleanor, then me, leaning close to my face and whispering, “Go to sleep, Veronika.”
Then she pushed the spot behind my ear, with a click, like always, and I did.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Heroes’ Reward by Moira J. Moore
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