What if I was born of the wrong ethnicity? Could I be happier in a different culture? If I could change my ethnicity, would I? These are the kinds of questions at the center of Jess Row's novel Your Face in Mine. I could relate. Had racial reassignment surgery been a viable option twenty years ago, I would've begged my parents to allow me to do it (oh, I can imagine how well that would've gone). This is the point where I can get really personal and tell you my story, but I think I'll pass this time. Needless to say, I have long had my own doubts regarding cultural attachments and my place in the world.
Perhaps my personal experience is why I loved this book from the get-go. I could identify with Martin. As a character in a novel, I don't think Martin is developed well enough—I never quite got a sense of why he'd go through with the racial reassignment—nevertheless, I understood the unspoken and the understated: Martin's draw to blackness was an emotional need, the appeal of compassion and family he found lacking in his own culture. So Martin gets the surgery and creates a completely new identity and in the first pages of this novel, he calls out to Kelly, a friend from high school. It has been nearly twenty years. This is where the story blooms. Kelly has to negotiate his feelings about Martin being a completely different man. The narrative, as told by Kelly, gets lost in backstory, subplots, and philosophy, but these largely do not detract from the primary story. Sure, I didn't quite buy the relationship between the three high school friends (Martin and Kelly, plus Alan, a significant player in their past), nor did I find Martin's mental transition organic, but those things largely didn't matter. I was fascinated by Martin and the choice he'd made; I was intrigued by how different of a person he'd become simply by “changing his 'race'”. To add to my enjoyment of the story, Kelly's history was heartbreaking and a wonderful component to keep the primary story from growing stale. I loved this novel...
until I just stopped caring. Two-thirds of the way through Your Face in Mine, there's a drastic change. In comparison to the narrative flow and tone of the novel, Martin's racial reassignment seems mild. Suddenly we're in the middle of a suspenseful something-or-other. Characters do one-eighties on us, with the turn of a page they're someone else (which may seem apt given the book's subject, but in the context of the novel it felt like a ploy, manipulating the story into the mold of the author's desire). Character choices come out of nowhere and I never got a firm handle on the 'why'. More suspense and a random illogical appearance by a minor character from earlier in the novel left me wishing I'd put it down after Part One. Everything after and ever after did not gel for me.
It felt to me like Row was writing for me in Part One. No, the novel wasn't perfect and it was definitely not going to be an all-time favorite, but I could've handed it a five-star rating. Whomever Row was writing to in Part Two, it wasn't me. And I have a feeling that that person who loved Part Two probably didn't feel like Part One was written for them; that person will likely find all the philosophical discussions earlier in the book quite tedious. Your Face in Mine is an odd little book that has so much potential, but I'm not sure who the intended audience really is. It is a great idea for a story, but in the end this novel itself is suffering from questions of identity.