Saturday, January 5, 2013

Connecting to Real Life and Real Love - Review of "Girl Parts" by John M. Cusick

Title: Girl Parts
Author: John M. Cusick
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication Date: 2010
Summary: (from Goodreads) - 
David and Charlie are opposites. David has a million friends, online and off. Charlie is a soulful outsider, off the grid completely. But neither feels close to anybody. When David’s parents present him with a hot Companion bot designed to encourage healthy bonds and treat his “dissociative disorder,” he can’t get enough of luscious redheaded Rose — and he can’t get it soon. Companions come with strict intimacy protocols, and whenever he tries anything, David gets an electric shock. Parted from the boy she was built to love, Rose turns to Charlie, who finds he can open up, knowing Rose isn’t real. With Charlie’s help, the ideal “companion” is about to become her own best friend. In a stunning and hilarious debut, John Cusick takes rollicking aim at internet culture and our craving for meaningful connection in an uberconnected world.

My Review:
This book came to my attention via a review written by Shaun of Traveling the Vortex (his review is here). He talked it up and I decided to give it a shot.  After all, I'm a (aspiring) teen librarian - I ought to know what the kids these days are reading.  While I agree with Shaun on the point that a major theme of this book is about being too connected through gadgets and not so much through meaningful personal connections, something else floated through my mind as I was reading this book.  So, I'll let Shaun's review stand as the conversation about the over-saturation of technology in our lives and I'm going to go a slightly different route.

Recently, I read the book "Why Gender Matters" by Leonard Sax, M.D. Ph.D. I didn't write a review of this book because, frankly it's hard to write a good review of non-fiction (at least, it is for me).  But that book brought up some interesting discoveries made in recent scientific studies.  Dr. Sax's work is aimed at helping parents and teachers understand why young boys and young girls learn differently and the differences in their emotional development.  Turns out, yes, male brains and female brains are hard-wired differently and that accounts for such vast gender differences (I'm speaking generally here, as does Dr. Sax - there are always exceptions to - and that prove - the rule.  I clued in to a few differences in myself that explained a lot about things in my own life).  It's a fascinating read, one I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the subject.

I mention Dr. Sax's book because there are some things that happen in "Girl Parts" that Dr. Sax talks extensively about - namely, how teenage boys and teenage girls form relationships and how some of the things that are perfectly normal and natural for teenage boys can seriously harm teenage girls (well, it probably harms them both, but girls' reactions are much more harmful to themselves).

The premise of "Girl Parts" is this - in the not-too-distant-future, a counselor at a boys' school figures out that many of the students are disconnected from the world around them.  Pretty much everything they do is online - school, socializing, play.  The solution? Prescribe each boy a female companion robot that is just like an actual human female - with several key components removed (after all, these are horny teenage boys we're dealing with here).  Each robot has a built-in Intimacy Clock that tells the robot when it's time to increase intimacy with her boy.  If the boy tries to go too far too soon, the boy gets a shock.  Otherwise, the robot is a perfect companion - she is programmed to learn what her boy wants in a girlfriend and how to connect with him and create a meaningful friendship).

(Personally, I sense a disconnect in this company's logic - to teach a boy how to socialize with other people, you give him a computerized robot to hang around with? Nope... still don't get it).

Anyway, two boys at this school are prescribed robots.  David's parents give him the robot because, hell, they can't be bothered to worry about the emotional well-being of their son. Make some artificial intelligence do it.  Besides, they can afford it.  Charlie, on the other hand, may be a loner but his dad thinks the robot is unnecessary.  So, Charlie doesn't get one and he gets to bumble through life and relationships just like the rest of us (after seeing what happens to David after he got his robot companion, there is no sarcasm in me when I say Charlie is the lucky one).

Something I love about this book is something that Cusick could have easily left out without losing a bit of the story, but I give him mad props for going this route - after Rose, David's robot companion, is powered up and starts learning about her surroundings, the narrative starts to follow her around the same way it does with Charlie and David.  She's not treated like a fix-it-quick machine that's supposed to cure David of his social ills - she learns, she has her own thoughts and feelings, she falls in love, she has an emotional connection with David.  Yes, she's programmed to do so, but that makes the rest of the story intriguing when she actually starts to think like a real human female and we as readers get to see her character development.

The scene that I had the hardest time with - emotionally - was the scene where David discovers that his robot companion, Rose, is not equipped to have sex.  For a month, the two of them have formed a close emotional bond because Rose's Intimacy Clock program won't let David get what he wants.  So, while Rose thinks she's really got something special with David, David's really just counting down until he can get himself a piece of that.  So, when David finds out that he can't even do what he's boasted to his friends what he's going to do with Rose, he storms out and leaves his robot behind (yeah, just a stinking robot, huh?)  But Rose is devastated because she loves David and he suddenly doesn't want her because she can't give him what he wants.  She runs off, having been rejected utterly by the boy she was literally built to love.  Lucky for her, Charlie finds her out in the woods and they become friends and develop a relationship that's built on trust and sincere caring for each other and not just posturing for the guys in the locker room.

Rose is very much damaged by David's reaction to her deficiencies.  She finds a friend in Charlie, even though he has his own insecurities to deal with (although, he doesn't go full-on George McFly "I'm Your Density" levels of awkward at any point, he's still more or less a loser.  But a very endearing loser).  Both Charlie and David create an interesting contrast in how they treat other people - not just girls, but also how they interact with other teenage boys, their parents and other authority figures.  By the end of the book, I knew which boy I'd be more willing to trust with my teenage daughter (that is, if I ever have a teenage daughter).

What I like about this book is also what makes it hard to recommend - I like that it talks about sex and relationships between teenage boys and girls and puts real faces and emotional consequences to it.  This book will promote a lot of discussion about teenage sexuality and relationships, but only if you're mature enough to handle it.  And I'm not just talking about if teenagers can handle such frank discussion, but also if the adults in their lives can handle it as well.  As a general rule, I wouldn't give this to anyone younger than 16, and even then I would have to account for individual maturity and tastes.  Sadly, the people who would benefit the most from this kind of story are the ones who wouldn't take it seriously and the ones who would take it seriously don't need to hear it.

Bottom Line: "Girl Parts" is a fascinating commentary on many aspects of modern teenage culture, whether that's how much technology runs your life or how you treat other people.  If taken in the right way, it can be an effective way to illustrate why some behaviors are better.  Sad thing is, I'm not sure everyone is grown-up enough to handle that.

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