Kristin's Reviews > Shifting

Shifting by Bethany Wiggins
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Jan 20, 2012

bookshelves: ra, young-adult
Read from January 19 to 20, 2012

This was a really good book--not great literature, but not every book needs to be. As soon as I read the synopsis and reviews, I had a sneaking suspicion that this would join the ranks of good books with stupid-ass covers that would prevent almost anyone from picking it up and that have nothing at all to do with the contents. I always wonder what it is that makes authors agree to this (if indeed they're granted even that power); it must be like the office of president--every candidate has grand ideas about how they'll make things different, but as soon as they get in there, the same thing happens to each and every one of them. I guess that's the whole reason why the saying exists, don't judge a book by its cover.
In any case, this book is incredibly refreshing and a stand-out work in YA fiction. The author must have heard the prayers of YA readers worldwide and granted us a likable main character. When we meet our heroine, we're pleasantly shocked and a little uncomprehending from years of having the sullen, whiny bitch teenager concept shoved down our throat to find out that she's polite, respectful, down to earth, mature, and not very self-pitying. Huh? And her new foster guardian is a completely awesome old lady who was one of the most fun parts of the whole story, not the hackneyed Evil Stepmother character. Hooray for portrayals in fiction of relationships of mutual respect between teens and adults!
Next, I love the setting and the premise. New Mexico, Navajo culture and mythology. I liked how the actual mythology of skinwalkers and shapeshifters was the supporting framework of the fantasy or paranormal element. That gave it more weight than just made-up crap. Honestly, it's basically a lot like my favorite old TV show, Roswell, only JUST (significantly) different enough to not be a knockoff. Meaning the specifics are quite divergent (Roswell=aliens, Shifting=people who can turn into animals), but the appeal is still there of the small town kids in deeply complicated love, the little family owned cafe as the central go-to spot, people who are more than what they appear to be trying to keep dangerous secrets from dangerous people who know more than they should, and of course, the desert. I'm biased because of my love of the desert, but I was greatly pleased to see loving descriptions of the land in a YA novel. That was atypical in a really nice way.
Finally, on the positives, if you can call it that, all the stuff about mean-girl politics was extremely timely and poignantly real. The harsh truth that the majority of girls and women choose to hate and try to destroy whatever they're mistakenly envious of out of their own gnawing and misplaced insecurities was portrayed without any sugarcoating at all in this book, and it managed to bring me right back to high school myself, where I experienced the same god forsaken shit. It managed to make me cry by page 72. That's another thing that doesn't usually result from reading YA books. However, I thought that the portrayal of this was slightly off from the more common reality, but not entirely out of the realm of possibility. In other words, in my long and exceptional experience of being torn at by the hacking claws of mean girls, the meanness is a hell of a lot more passive aggressive and therefore more ultimately damaging, and more deeply abusive than is described in this story. Girls aren't really like Danni, the book's queen mean girl--straightforward with their hatred, their goals, and their culpability, and rallying troops for physical abuse. No: because that gives girls like our protagonist Maggie the opportunity to do exactly what she did-- beat the girl to a pulp in self defense. In real life, these witches practice being Helen of Troy by causing a whole nation to fall without ever lifting their finger. They destroy you with highly effective, masterfully executed whispers of lying gossip, a charade of friendliness and aloof disconnection from what they're doing, a feather switch in their hand to cover their tracks in the snow; a black body bag, a rope, and a stone with which to sink the evidence of their crimes to the bottom of a deep river. Maybe this author is trying to set a new and much needed precedent, as recognized by psychological studies today, to try to get it into the culture of girls at adolescence that if they're angry about something, they need to let it out directly, even (perhaps especially) if fists need to be thrown to accomplish it. In this book, Danni wants Bridger, who likes Maggie; she also wants to be the fastest runner, and she's not anymore, now that Maggie is. She wants to have an attractive boyfriend and be recognized as being good at something. Now that's not so bad, is it? Why can't a girl just say that out loud? That's the problem that girls and women face today. In my experience, girls have mistakenly wanted thinness, mistakenly hated their own body, hated never being able to be shaped like Cinderella and Belle no matter how hard they try or how hard they puke, while girls like me, unwittingly and accidentally have rubbed it in their faces that we could eat whatever we wanted, never even dabble in an eating disorder, and never gain a pound, therefore achieving the "what? who cares?" attitude about our figure that makes guys like hanging out with us because we're not going to talk endlessly about our damn body. Without such a girl ever saying an unkind word, just these facts feel to many girls as if they're the ones being hurt and victimized, and so their wrath seems righteous to them. And I find that in essentially all cases of real-life mean girl-ism, that's what they're after. Thinness: their singular desire which they would all but kill for, even, perversely, if they already possess it but society has warped their minds to think they don't. Prettiness, popularity, material belongings, intellect matter not at all in the slightest: Just thinness, that purposeless red apple that poisons the mind. This book had a chance to explore this issue specifically, but I'm kind of glad it didn't. Being TOO close to reality, after all, in this case would undoubtedly make that one aspect overshadow the whole story. But it scraped just close enough to really make readers think about it.
Now, I thought there were some flaws, of course. I wasn't a huge fan of intelligent and self-aware Maggie being all googly-eyed about Bridger. Apparently the son of a billionaire, we're expected to believe he's a good guy. Actually, we're not, really, until literally the last few pages. Maggie rightfully doesn't trust him all the way until then, and the reader is made to trust him even less. He does a lot of really assholeish things to Maggie that aren't ALL explained away at the end in the reveal-all session. He remains kind of a douchebag. He's supposedly in love with Maggie, but he keeps giving her all this "I'm obligated to marry into my same social class" bullshit. If he were really the guy Maggie stacks him up to be, he A. wouldn't care what his parents thought, and B. if he really, really had to care what his parents think, he would at least phrase it to her as totally their idea, instead of equally his. And he wouldn't have EVER, even in the past, been with someone as horrifically vapid as the French hoe he's expected to marry because he had spent a summer making out with her. Actions like that don't just magically wear off of someone's personality; they stick down deep and can never really be removed, like deeply embedded cat hair in a wool coat.

ETC.

It was also totally unrealistic that Maggie and Bridger were "best friends" who touched each other all the time. Opposite-sex best friends who are secretly in love with each other don't touch each other all the time and then still try to pass it off as nothing but friendship.
Finally, I don't like it when teen novels pass off the romance between 17 year olds as the be-all end-all. That stuff subtly worms its way into the psyche and makes a teen feel inadequate for not finding the love of their life by the end of high school, when in reality, it's normal and the perfect way of things that this kind of love won't happen until they're at least in their mid 20s, and the very idea of a couple at age 17 staying together forever is actually patently ridiculous. But this was really the only aspect of this book that didn't pleasantly surprise me. Perhaps the publishing deal went hand in hand with this and the goofy cover.
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