In Morgan’s (The World Between Two Covers, 2015) debut novel, 6-year-old identical twins swap identities for an afternoon to play a joke on their neighbors. But when one girl refuses to switch back, the rest of their lives begin.
Ellie and Helen may look alike, but they have very different personalities; Helen is the “good girl,” petted and loved by their mother, and Ellie seems to have behavioral issues and learning disabilities. After their harmless prank goes awry, the original Helen, now Ellie, finds herself trapped in the life of a troubled misfit while her sister goes on to live a life of best friends, high school parties, and, ultimately, adult success as a daytime TV host. The novel alternates chapters from the perspective of the original Helen as a little girl and the same character, identified as “Smudge,” in adulthood, faced with the news that her sister is in a coma. With each chapter, time passes until the two intersect at novel’s end. Along the way, we see Helen’s angry, violent adolescence; her realizations about her father’s suicide; her mother’s coldness and ultimate abandonment; her struggles with mental illness; and, in the end, her triumph over history and genetics to find happiness. The novel is a deep, troubling, painful exploration of identity, genetics, and mental illness, but along the journey, the main character (Helen/Ellie/Smudge) becomes truly fascinating. Smudge, in particular, is a pathetic character when first we meet her, but slowly, the alternating time periods and the characters themselves transcend the bathos to become complex, nuanced, and sympathetic, finding salvation in art and living life on her own terms. Despite all the emotional upheaval experienced by pretty much every character, the book will leave the reader feeling satisfied and even hopeful.
Ambitious and gritty; a modern take on the age-old question of fate versus free will.