In Jacquelyn Mitchard's novels, no matter how rare or fantastical the premise, the worlds she creates feel more intensely real than in any number of memoirs out there. Even when I'm a bit skeptical about a particular plot turn, I still feel as if I know these characters from somewhere in my life. Eventually I must suspend judgment and let myself become absorbed in the arguments - there are always lots of arguments - and in the twists of the story.
The premise of Mitchard's new novel, Second Nature: A Love Story, is that a young woman, her face burned beyond recognition at age 13, becomes beautiful after a face transplant at 25. The story is set at some unspecified time in the future, when face transplants have become more commonplace. A story like that has all sorts of potential for melodrama, but the locally based author uses her considerable skills as a journalist to keep the tone factual and unsentimental.
It helps that Sicily Coyne, primary narrator and recipient of the transplant, is sharp and articulate. She's even bratty at times, a trait she admits was allowed to go unchecked; her mother and guardian aunt indulged her after the school fire that took both her firefighter father and her face. Having suffered that catastrophe, she recounts years of dealing with such heavy loss and shocking disfigurement in a typically dry-eyed fashion, then describes the ordeals and terrors of undergoing the transplant and her rocky adjustment to life as a beauty afterwards.
The first half reads to some extent as a medical memoir, with the exception of a very fine scene in which Sicily learns what really happened the day of the fire. The promised love story arrives in the second half, after the transplant. For this section, Mitchard brings back the Cappadora family from The Deep End of the Ocean. Perhaps it is her familiarity with those characters that gives a looser, more intimate feel to Sicily's recovery from the operation, and her explorations into life with a whole and lovely face again.
In spite of the title, Second Nature: A Love Story seems less a love story than a study of the most basic aspects of identity. How much of who we are - and who we think we are - is related to the face we see in the mirror and is seen by others? And how do we know who we are and what we want if that most basic part of our identity changes dramatically - in Sicily's case twice?
Once again, Mitchard offers an unexpectedly believable journey into a world that few of us ever contemplate, or would wish to.