Bruiser by Neal Shusterman

From the back cover:
Don’t get me started on the Bruiser. He was voted “Most Likely to Get the Death Penalty” by the entire school. He’s the kid no one knows, no one talks to, and everyone hears disturbing rumors about. So why is my sister, Brontë, dating him? One of these days she’s going to take in the wrong stray dog, and it’s not going to end well.

My brother has no right to talk about Brewster that way—no right to threaten him. There’s a reason why Brewster can’t have friends—why he can’t care about too many people. Because when he cares about you, things start to happen. Impossible things that can’t be explained. I know, because they’re happening to me.

Let me just state upfront that any parents pretentious enough to name their children Tennyson and Brontë need a damn good whacking.

Moving on, Bruiser (from the author of Unwind) is the story of a social outcast named Brewster Rawlins who is perceived as a creepy delinquent by his classmates but is actually harboring a secret that compels him to keep his distance: if he cares about someone, he will absorb their pain, both mental and physical. Alternating between the perspectives of four characters (broody poetry fan Brewster, twins Tennyson and Brontë Sternberger, and Brewster’s daredevil little brother), the novel depicts how Brewster’s gift/curse affects his relationships with others and how, ultimately, being healed of all one’s ills is not necessarily a good thing.

Initially, Tennyson is opposed to his sister dating Brewster and sets out to warn the guy off, but once he catches a glimpse of Brewster’s terribly scarred back, he begins to suspect something awful is going on at the boy’s home. Concern and conscience win out, and he and Brewster begin to become friends, which is when Tennyson first notices that the scabs on his knuckles (a lacrosse injury) have miraculously disappeared in Brew’s presence. It takes a while for the specifics of his ability to come to light, and an interminable time for Tennyson and Brontë to realize that Brew’s ability to take away pain also extends to their feelings.

At first, I thought they did realize that Brew could quell mental anguish, and that that was part of the reason they convinced/manipulated their on-the-verge-of-divorce parents into taking temporary custody of Brew and his brother, Cody, after their guardian, Uncle Hoyt, passes away. Selfish to use Brew in this way, yes, but believably so for desperate teens. Eventually, though, it seems they really did not know, which is why Brontë kept pushing and pushing for Brew to make new friends, never considering that, for him, more people to care about means more potential injury. Uncle Hoyt was an abusive drunken bastard, true, but his ability to hang on to his own anger (instead of passing it off to Brew) and his insistence that Brew keep his distance from the world are seen in a new light by the novel’s end. (And speaking of the end, reports of its cheesiness are not exaggerated. The last few lines made me go “Pfft.”)

Even with the mystery of Brewster’s powers, Bruiser lacks the high-impact concept of Unwind. Instead of an epic dystopia where the whole country is going in a bizarre direction, Tennyson and Brontë’s world is defined by their home life, where they can tell that something very wrong is happening between their parents. Brew’s presence in their home acts as a balm for a while, but eventually they want to own their own pain because it seems so wrong to feel content while their family crumbles. The novel may not be as dramatic as Unwind, but is possessed of its own subtle themes and messages. I’ll definitely be reading more Shusterman in the future.

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

From the front flap:
In a society where unwanted teens are salvaged for their body parts, three runaways fight the system that would “unwind” them.

Connor’s parents want to be rid of him because he’s a troublemaker. Risa has no parents and is being unwound to cut orphanage costs. Lev’s unwinding has been planned since his birth, as pat of his family’s strict religion. Brought together by chance, and kept together by desperation, these three unlikely companions make a harrowing cross-country journey, knowing their lives hang in the balance. If they can survive until their eighteenth birthday, they can’t be harmed—but when every piece of them, from their hands to their hearts, [is] wanted by a world gone mad, eighteen seems far, far away.

At some time in America’s future, the second civil war is fought over the issue of abortion. In the end, a compromise is reached. Known as the “bill of life,” the law says that life cannot be touched between birth and age thirteen, but between thirteen and eighteen parents can choose to retroactively abort a child in a process known as “unwinding,” by which the child does not technically die but is instead used for organ donation. Unwinding has now become a common and accepted practice in society.

This is a lot to swallow. One wonders why on earth anyone would agree to such a compromise, and I admit I struggled with the concept. After a while, though, one just accepts it and moves on, enjoying the story Shusterman lays out.

Unwind features three kids who are due to undergo the unwinding process. Connor Lassiter has trouble thinking through his actions and controlling his temper, causing his fed-up parents to decide to have him unwound. Risa Ward is a ward of the state. She’s been living in a state home, working hard to distinguish herself as a pianist, but she’s just not flawless enough to be worth saving, and is scheduled to be sent off to “harvest camp” in order to keep orphanage costs low. Lev Calder is a “tithe,” who was brought up by his parents and church to believe that his eventual unwinding is somehow a holy thing. Circumstances bring the three together, tear them apart, and bring them together again, with no one remaining unchanged.

While the plot of Unwind is certainly fast-paced and frequently surprising, the best thing about it is the way in which the characters are developed. At first, Connor’s lack of foresight and impulse control is maddening. He runs away to avoid being sent to harvest camp, but leaves his cell phone on, making him easy to track. He reacts to a baby left on a doorstep without thinking, saddling him and his companions with an infant they don’t have the resources to care for. In short, he’s more like a typical teen than a typical hero. Very gradually, and with the help from the more logical Risa, Connor evolves. He learns to keep his cool and discovers a talent for fixing things, be they mechanical or societal in nature. He becomes a leader, a genuine hero, and his progress is entirely believable.

Lev also changes a great deal. The youngest of the three, he’s only thirteen, and has spent his whole life being indoctrinated in certain beliefs. When Connor impulsively saves him from his “glorious fate,” Lev is not grateful at all, and turns Connor and Risa in at the first available opportunity. When he realizes that not even his pastor believes that what his family is doing is right, Lev’s world is thrown into turmoil. Separated now from Connor and Risa, he travels on his own, quickly becoming street-wise and meeting up with CyFi, a smart but troubled teen who once received a partial brain transplant from an unwind and is now contending with strange impulses from that other kid. Thrust into the harsh world with no preparation, Lev hardens quickly and learns to think for himself. Through learning of sin and evil, he becomes a much better person than he ever was before.

Risa doesn’t change as dramatically as the others, since she was always level-headed and cognizant of her possible fate. With her, the fact that she’s begun to allow herself to finally hope is what’s significant. I’m fond of her characterization in general, though, especially that she’s capable, competent, and so frequently the voice of reason. Her ability to keep a cool head during medical emergencies is also welcome.

Ultimately, while I could not completely suspend my disbelief in order to buy into the premise of this dystopic future world, I still liked Unwind a great deal. Even though Shusterman makes some Important Points, his approach is still balanced, as he questions whether it’s fair to bring unwanted children into the world in the first place even while his characters struggle so very hard for the right to live. Lastly, I must commend him for a positively chilling depiction of the unwinding process. That will seriously stick with me for a long time.

In conclusion, Unwind is good. Go read it. And Shusterman, get cracking on that sequel (Unwholly, TBA).