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Jennifer Castle's second young adult novel is clever even if it is rather contrived. It takes the idea of Michael Apted's 7 Up series of documentaries and transposes it to modern American teens. In this version, 5 children were interviewed at the ages of 6, and then 5 years later, at 11. The children are Justine, Nate, Felix, Keira, and Rory. Justine tells the story. They are now 16, and the filmmakers are going to make the latest version. At first Justine does not want to take part, feeling disappointed in herself and also not wanting the invasion into her life of public attention. She changes her mind, but still she is very conscious of how she has transformed from a charismatic, confident 11-year-old to a self-conscious and depressed teenager who is still not over a break up with her first love. Some of the others in their group of five also have reservations about being on camera again. As the story proceeds, we see this is partly due to how being in the previous movies has affected their lives. In particular, the previous documentary showed Keira while she was being told by her father that his marriage with her mother was over. She has not seen her mother for years. On the other hand, while Nate was a nerdy weirdo when he was 11, he is now a popular jock, and it seems like this is because he wanted to change how he appeared in the last documentary. So there is a lot about how being interviewed and filmed changes their lives. We see Justine's relationship with the filmmakers, Lance and Leslie, a married couple who are under pressure to have a success after a recent flop. This means that they are frequently going beyond their stated role of just being observers, and are starting to set up situations that will make for good footage.
So You Look Different in Real Life grapples with a lot of sophisticated issues: media ethics, the role of journalists and documentary makers, the possibility of giving a true depiction of a person's life in a film of a couple of hours, and the role of the documentary subjects in influencing how the film is made. It also deals with many of the issues that face teens today: sexuality, love, planning a life, relationships with parents, social awkwardness and the Autistic Spectrum, secrets, and managing friendships. Justine narration makes her a sympathetic figure, and the plot moves along at a brisk pace. There are some set pieces that are awkwardly framed, and they are not very plausible, but it helps her make Castle illustrate her ideas. The story deals with some painful issues but gives them all a positive spin.
Samantha Quan reads the unabridged audiobook. It's a good performance, although we might wish for someone who sounded a little younger. Quan manages to keep the voices of the different characters distinct, which is important for a book with a large cast.
© 2014 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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