What a creative plot line: “A”, age 16, has never occupied a single body for more than one day, ever. A therefore is not any specific gender, ethnicity, religion, or color; A takes on the shape and characteristics of whatever body is the host for the day. On different days, A is, among other things: a drug addict, a suicidal girl, a morbidly obese boy, a football player, and a mean and spiteful girl. This gives the author an unparalleled opportunity to make all sorts of social commentary.
As the story opens, A (whom I will refer to as a “he” for ease of discussion), wakes up in the body of Justin, an apparently cute guy but a total jerk. Nevertheless, Justin has managed to secure the affections of Rhiannon, a pretty girl who approaches him “tentative and expectant, nervous and adoring.” For the first time ever, A falls for someone else – i.e., Rhiannon, enough to want to see her again and again, regardless of the body he inhabits. Since all of the bodies A occupies tend to live within about a four-hour radius of one another, this is a possibility.
Interestingly, A observes that while Rhiannon recognizes him no matter what his exterior is, Justin doesn’t really “see” Rhiannon even though she looks the same every day. This is made yet more obvious when A actually becomes Rhiannon for a day. Justin doesn’t even pay enough attention to Rhiannon to notice she is different. (What might seem like a heavy-handed message in any other story is, thanks to Levithan’s clever story device, just part of the way we are made to understand how a being like A might perceive reality.)
A tries to displace Justin and establish intimacy with Rhiannon, but he really has no idea how difficult it is for Rhiannon to respond to him in a different form each day. When Rhiannon tells A she just can’t go on with a relationship like this, A comes up with a drastic solution. He knows Rhiannon will be not only his first love, but his only love. He is prepared to do the only thing he can, to honor that love.
Discussion: A gleans a lot of insight into the human condition by virtue of his peripatetic existence. First of all, he must constantly struggle to reconcile the needs of the body he occupies with his own presence and his own control of reason. How, for example, can he fight the drug user’s compulsive need for an addictive substance, and would it matter anyway if the host body resisted for only one day? Worrying about “changing” a host body is analogous for A to a time-traveler being careful about not altering history: if A makes too radical a move in someone’s life, would the repercussions be even worse?
In addition, he learns the effects – both good and bad – of different types of parenting, and he sees the prejudices people have toward appearances and gender orientation. He doesn’t understand the social distinctions resulting from these differences, because inside of the different bodies, A is still “himself,” no matter what form he occupies. Why don’t people look beneath the surface?
Leviathan doesn’t really provide an answer to these questions, but at least he poses them. This story is an excellent catalyst to get readers to think about social conventions.
Evaluation: This is a very good book, and a great choice for book clubs, but be prepared to be wiped out emotionally when you are finished!
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 2012