Unidentified Feelings, or the Mystery of Adaptation

by Tony Le

Are you feeling a little alien lately? No problem–so does the protagonist of Malinda Lo’s Adaptation, Reese Holloway. After a freak car accident in Area 51 with her debate partner David, Reese begins noticing strange changes in her body and her feelings (puberty, anyone?). She keeps experiencing weird headaches which at first she chalks up to concussion-type headaches, but when she notices her accelerated healing and bizarre touchy-feely empathy powers, she knows there must be something else amiss. Not to mention, in the real world, even stranger events are occurring: birds keep dropping dead to the ground, websites keep getting pulled down, and the government keeps instilling curfews. Reese’s best friend, Julian, thinks that it’s all some sort of deep government conspiracy involving UFOs, aliens, and mutant birds.

But despite the problems going on in the larger world, Reese has bigger, more personal worries. She’s just a teenager, after all, and she has to push aside the weird mutant-bird/alien-tech conspiracy aside for her confusing bodily changes and her strange sexual awakening. Before all these weird changes, Reese had never been interested in dating–but now, she has to deal with the swirling emotions for David, for whom her feelings range from shame to confusion to attraction, and this new pink-haired/blond girl, Amber, who confuses Reese’s idea of sexual attraction and sexual identity.

So: mutant birds, possible alien conspiracy, weird sexual feelings, and strange bodily changes. Adaptation has a lot on its plate. To use the categorical genre terms, Adaptation can be filed under: YA and paranormal/romance/LGBT/mystery/dystopian/science-fiction. Yikes! What a mouthful. For most novels, combining all these different tropes and genres can be difficult to manage, but it’s the novel’s diverse pool of archetypes and tropes that give it a unique texture unlike the typical “chick-lit” YA novels. However, like those novels, Adaptation still discusses the age-old issues of body image and self-discovery through Reese’s own coming-of-age journey in a personal and geographical landscape that is at once familiar and foreign. After all, what else can you call a world where birds smear themselves into a bloody mess on the ground?

The storytelling in Adaptation strays from the typical first-person narrator. Instead, the story is told through a limited third person point of view, with a focus on Reese. There are other perspectives, filtered in through a judicious use of news reports. These news reports, in the form of website descriptions, articles, and announcers, help to contextualize Reese’s personal conflict in the larger context of her dystopic world. Like the announcers in The Hunger Games film, these news reports allow the reader a glimpse of the surroundings, but without the distancing effect the movie creates. Rather, the third person perspective allows for the flexibility of a grounded story while still allowing for the personal and intimate relationship between the reader and Reese.

Lo’s writing is at once sparse but simple. It doesn’t appear to try too hard; each sentence is packed with a verb and an action. But the magic of the writing is in its apparent simplicity, because when Reese does encounter her confusing feelings, Lo’s writing comes alive to illustrate the unusual and dramatic: “It was as if a storm were brewing inside her: the wind swirling dark clouds in an accelerating spiral.” These metaphors and comparisons come especially in handy when Reese struggles with her attraction to other people and lends itself to some interesting comparisons that definitely strike the chord of adolescence:

“Amber smelled like cupcakes, and long after she had waved and headed off in the opposite direction, the scent lingered in Reese’s memory: buttercream and the sweetness of sugar.”
With these sweet (literally) images of rising cupcake-y love, it’s no wonder that Reese is so confused. But these relationships with her love interests, and with the other characters, is what makes Adaptation so compelling. Her feelings for David are already hard enough to deal with. With her inability to discuss her feelings openly, sexual tension runs between them through the duration of the novel. Her only tie to him is that he, too, is going through some weird changes in his body. It’s like puberty, but induced by the government through invasive and non-consensual surgery! And it’s something they can share between the two of them, not necessarily romantically, but by nature of the . Even her best friend, Julian, who is half-Black/half-Jewish and gay, can’t share the feelings despite his own very intersectional identity.

The only person who seems to make sense to Reese is Amber, who really doesn’t make that much sense at all. Her arousal in Amber’s presence is at once frightening and baffling, especially when real world issues like sexual identity and the need to name one’s sexual identity come into play. Is she bisexual? Is she gay? Is she just “not straight”? Does it even matter when the Men in Black seem to be following her around?

Although it appears as though the conspiracy plot supersedes these real-life issues of gender/sexuality, Reese’s issues with her body act as interesting and relevant parallels to the struggles of teenage girls today. For Reese, nothing seems clear. Before her accident, she was on the debate team, on her way to the state finals. Now, she can barely recognize herself in the mirror. All her relationships are fraught with tension. She doesn’t know who she’s attracted to–or, even more simply, who to trust.

The science fiction elements are there as tools for Reese’s self-exploration, but in the end, they are just that: tools. Tools don’t necessarily make stories bad, or cheap; on the contrary, these speculative looks on the future illuminate contrived issues, creating new perspectives of old issues–and Adaptation does just that. Underneath this guise of sci-fi and the paranormal, Adaptation is still a story for young adults about finding your own skin, even when it starts to feel a little extraterrestial.


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