For some reason, we're perfectly ready to accept stories about vampires, werewolves and wizards. But whenever I've mentioned to friends the premise of Lauren McLaughlin's "Cycler" and its sequel "Recycler" — it's about a teenage girl named Jill who turns into a boy named Jack for four days every month — I've received a lot of question-mark faces. And to be fair, I thought "Cycler" would either be A) a weird, uncomfortable story, heavy on the embarrassing scenes played up for comedy (like "Tootsie" or "Just One of the Guys"), or B) a weird, uncomfortable look at gender identity and sexuality ("Crying Game" or "Boys Don't Cry"). Happily, it's neither, which is probably why it's been snatched up to be made into a movie. (McLaughlin, a veteran screenwriter, is adapting it herself, and she'll be blogging about the process right here tomorrow.)
"Cycler" is actually a warm-hearted, honest, genuinely funny story with an amazing cast of characters — all of whom you can identify with in some way, despite this very weird, uncomfortable situation they find themselves in. Jill has had this condition since she was 14, and after many fruitless consultations with baffled doctors, she and her mother decided that the only way to deal with it is to hide it from the world. So Jack spends his four days locked in the house, and Jill tells her friends and teachers that she has a weird blood disorder that requires in-patient treatment every month. She also does some amazing self-hypnosis so that not even she remembers her days as Jack — and they truly act and think like completely separate people.
Jill spends her non-Jack days hanging out with quirky best friend and aspiring fashion designer Ramie, and plotting how to get new cute boy Tommy Knutson to ask her to the prom. That plotting is actually the best part of the book: It involves Jill learning how to mimic the walk of the school's most popular girl, a hilarious slapstick scene in the town's ski slope and other misguided attempts at making herself into "a being like no other." And the BFF slang Jill and Ramie have invented — "sticky eyes" (staring), "mal" (bad, that sucks, uh-oh) and "deeply" (very, really) — is so darn catchy, I had to remind myself not to use it in real life.
Of course, this wouldn't be a story if Jack didn't start getting "deeply" unsatisfied with his imprisonment, stirring up potential disaster for Jill. And the aftermath of his actions lead to a great sequel. Without spoiling too much, I'll just say "Recycler" is both a very familiar reminder of my own experience as an 18-year-old living in New York for the first time and a fresh story about the complexities of dating, friendship and becoming an adult when you have a tiny problem of being two different people.
McLaughlin's been on a "virtual" book tour, making stops at other book blogs for the past two weeks, and her last stop will be right here on Tuesday, so stay tuned.
In the meantime, have you read "Cycler" and "Recycler"? Tell us what you think!