Why Can't I Be You
by Allie Larkin

Plume, 2013. ISBN 978-0-452-29837-8.
Reviewed by Olga Livshin
Posted on 05/01/2013

Fiction: Mainstream

A solid, expressive book. On one hand, the novel is easy to read; the narrative flows gently, without the false pretense of being only for the cultured elite. On the other hand, the story examines the bottomless question of identity, which has puzzled philosophers and writers from the beginning of the written word.

The protagonist, Jenny, is searching for herself. Unhappy in her career and her personal life, she has always tried to be what other people wanted her to be. To appease her drunkard of a mother, she concealed her true self and gave up friendships. An artist at heart, she gave up painting to please her boyfriend. But when that same boyfriend dumps her on the way to a professional conference, Jenny snaps and does something entirely out of character.

In the elevator of the conference hotel, an unknown woman bumps into her, calling her Jessie and beaming with joy. Obviously, the woman mistakes her for an old school friend, and suddenly Jenny wants to be Jessie. Whoever Jessie is, she has friends, she is loved; something Jenny has never had. Just for a few days of the conference, Jenny decides to play the role of her look-alike Jessie and experience friendships and loves she has never known. What could be the harm? Just for a few days, she wants to be someone else: someone carefree and daring, someone comfortable in her own skin, unlike the mousy, self-doubting Jenny.

That one desperate step starts her on a road of self-exploration, the road dotted with pain and revelations, love and deceit. The false name doesn't change Jenny. Instead, it helps her to excavate her hidden depth, bring forth her artistic soul. Symbolically, the Jenny-impersonating-Jessie is garbed in a provocative red dress, which feels organic and true, as opposed to the fake, dull veneer of the Jenny-executive, wearing drab business colors. Of course, as we all know, shedding old skin is a painful process, and the new skin is sensitive and raw, throbbing with emotional overload.

Several secondary characters, Jessie's friends, stand alive from the pages. Each one has his or her own quirks, his or her own intimate history with Jessie. As Jenny navigates the murky waters of Jessie's relationships, an abiding affection for the woman's friends grows inside Jenny. She yearns for them to be her friends too but she knows it is all a sham. She lied to them all.

Sad and lonely once more, Jenny wonders: how could Jessie abandon such beautiful, warm-hearted friends? Who is the mysterious Jessie? As Jenny digs, layer after layer of assumptions and evasions fall away. Not everything is bliss in Jessie's world, as Jenny first assumed, but Jenny herself is finally free of all masks, ready to start anew under her own name.

The story develops slowly, perhaps too slowly, although the tension building is masterful. Every moment of her masquerade, Jenny expects to be defrauded, repudiated, but it never happens, until she herself regretfully ends the game. Some scenes seem more important than others, and a couple of episodes feel entirely unnecessary for the story, but all of them allow the reader to peek inside Jenny's mind, to share her emotional turmoil and her thrill of self-discovery.

The ending was the only part of the novel that vexed me. It was too easy, too pat. Suddenly, everything fell into place in Jenny's life, and I didn't believe it. Paradoxically, while the unbelievable, fantastic premise felt totally realistic, the mundane conclusion felt false. Otherwise, a delightful novel.

Allie Larkin is the internationally bestselling author of the novel Stay (2010), and Why Can't I Be You (2013). She has never ordered a dog off the internet or assumed a new identity to attend a high school reunion. Allie lives with her husband, Jeremy, their German Shepherd Stella, and a three-legged cat. Visit her website.

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