I saw Jessica Brody on a panel at GeekGirlCon, a panel that featured several other female young adult authors as well—including Marissa Meyer, whose books I love (although admittedly I'm a sucker for any fractured fairy tale). Brody seemed interesting, and I was intrigued by the premise of her book. She shared that she came up with the idea when she was encountered a newspaper article about a girl who was the sole survivor of a plane crash, and had awoken from the crash with amnesia. (Brody also mentioned that Unremembered is being made into a movie.)
I really wanted to like this book. As I said already, the premise drew me in, I liked Brody during her panel. And while I found the actual plot line as interesting as advertised, I had some big problems with the content.
A short summary: A girl wakes up in the ocean, surrounded by bodies after a plane crash. The rescue crews find her and the next thing she knows, she wakes up in the hospital. She can't remember anything about her life, but the doctors determine that she's 16. The hospital and Social Services search for her family, but to no avail. One night in the hospital, a mysterious boy somehow appears, seems to know who she is, and vows to get her out. Then he disappears. Meanwhile, this unnamed girl is taken in by a lovely foster family in a remote area so that she won't be hounded by the media. She encounters the mysterious boy again while out grocery shopping with her foster mother, and is given some more information about her life before the crash, including her name: Sera. As the story continues, you find out more about how she came to be in the middle of the ocean, why she doesn't have any memories, and about a menacing corporation that is chasing her.
The first thing that irked me happened not even twenty pages into the book. Sera's nurse, Kiyana, is talking to her about all of these people that have come out of the woodwork, claiming to be Sera's family. Kiyana tells Sera that the authorities know they're not her family, though, because none of them know about the locket. Now, it's true that the locket comes into play in a big way later down the line, so it's not there only to weed out the fake families. But being such a huge musical theatre nerd, I know that this particular plot point is straight out of Annie. (In Annie, Daddy Warbucks searches for Annie's real parents, and he spots the fakes because Annie was left by her parents at the orphanage with half of a locket.) I know that plot points and devices are fairly regularly stolen and transferred and adapted by authors, but there was no change here.
However, the biggest issue for me was the treatment of Sera as a young woman. Not ten pages in, people are already commenting on her looks. Kiyana cites Sera's supermodel looks as a sure sign that her family will come looking for her. Because she's beautiful and special, and beautiful and special people always have people looking for them. It's a crass way of saying it, but unfortunately it is a truth of our society. So I gave it a by. Then, 60 pages in her foster mom tells her she's lucky to be "so pretty so young." And all I could think was, "What the hell?! In constantly pointing out her physical beauty, you're teaching this girl with no memory that looks are one of the most important things in life. You had what amounted to a blank slate, and you decided to perpetuate the same beauty-driven bullshit? WHY?!" Comments about Sera's superhuman beauty continue throughout the length of the book.
I know that my reaction wasn't Brody's intention; GeekGirlCon is a convention for the empowerment of lady geeks, so I don't think that she would have attended if she wasn't all for that mission. I think what she was trying to do was emphasize that Sera stood out from the "norm," which is in itself a stepping stone to get to the big reveal about Sera's origins. But I found it incredibly uncomfortable, especially in a book that is aimed at young adults.
Again, along the same line, she is later told by the big bads at the malevolent corporation that, "We purposefully programmed you to be docile and obedient." (284) And I couldn't help thinking to myself, would this line have been present if Sera had been a male synthetic human being? I can forgive this one a bit more as it's only one line (not pervasive, like the comments on Sera's appearance, which are constant) and it seems as though it's meant to be more reflective of the corporation's antiquated views than anything else.
Sera also becomes obsessed with the mysterious boy who showed up in her hospital room, who is called Zen (short for Lyzender). She says at one point, after Zen has been kidnapped by the corp, that "Everything feels empty without Zen." (225). She can barely remember the boy, but has a feeling that he is important and essential to her. Later, she says of Zen, "Zen can never be forgotten. He lives in my blood. In my soul." (299) I find scenarios like this not only unrealistic, but damaging to perpetuate. It's one of the (many, many) problems that I had with the Twilight series. In the Twilight series, after Edward leaves her, Bella descends into a dangerous emotional spiral, because she's convinced herself that she cannot live without him. She's placed her entire reason for existence on another person. I want to empower women to feel as though they can love someone while not disappearing into them, so if that relationship ends, they can still be whole. I don't want young girls, or any young people, to think that there is only one person for them forever, and that one person should be your everything. I understand that the feelings Sera is having for Zen are partially because he is like a rock for her, a person she can be sure of even when her memories are being manipulated. But that's not what these sentences are expressing. It's made very clear that the reason that Sera remembers him is because they're "soul mates." She can't forget him, even if they wipe all of her other memories, because they're "soul mates."
To some extent, I understand that one of the purposes of YA novels is to attempt to keep the jadedness of life from influencing young folks so early, to help keep them optimistic. The world is hard, and the longer that we can keep people believing in goodness and love, the better. But I think there's a way to do it without talking down to them or presenting them with completely unhealthy scenarios. I think it's possible to do it without making them think that they're going to meet a "soul mate" who will become their reason for existence.
It was worth reading, and an exciting idea, but I had a hard time making it through. I know that there are a couple of other books in this series, and might come back to them later to see where the story ends up going, but it's not the first set of book on my to-read list.