Thursday, June 27, 2019

Book Review: "Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl" by Andrea Lawlor

Sometimes I find myself lamenting that there are very few original stories out there anymore, that too many books seem too similar to one another. And then I read a book like Andrea Lawlor's Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, and that lamentation flies out the window.

Holy crap.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is sexy, crazy, confusing, bizarre, funny, and one of the most utterly creative stories I've read in a really long time. I'm not sure if I understand what Lawlor was trying to say but they took me on one hell of a journey with this book.

Paul is a young, handsome gay man living in Iowa City in the mid-1990s. He's smart, well-read, friendly, and has mastered the art of winning the attention of those he's attracted to. Not a day goes by when Paul doesn't have an encounter with someone he meets, someone he knows, or someone he barely acknowledges, beyond the simple act of sex.

"He was glad to be a known homosexual—it allowed him a daring way with girls."

The thing is, Paul isn't just any young man—he's a shapeshifter. He can transform himself physically between male and female based on his whims. All he needs to do is concentrate and his body changes—parts grow and disappear, his hair grows and recedes. (My sister had a Skipper doll that "grew up" when you turned her arm, and I kept thinking about that when I read this.)

With a wardrobe change he can quickly go from preppy college student to butch lesbian or leather boy, and no one ever suspects his authenticity. (He just can't lose focus, or things might slide back to his "normal" male self.)

Only one person knows his secret, his best friend Jane. When the two travel to a womyn's music festival, Jane and Polly (Paul's alter ego) are ready for two weeks of fun and unbridled sex, and he looks forward to embodying this role for an extended period of time. Yet Paul is unprepared to fall in love, and is definitely unprepared for the crazy set of events that occur next.

I knew next to nothing about this book, and I think part of its appeal lies in the element of surprise, that the plot unfolds without the reader having much expectation about what's to come. The plot is essentially divided into thirds, and I found the first and third sections more interesting than the middle. Lawlor is a great storyteller, and they really did a terrific job with place and time, truly evoking the feel of the 1990s.

This book is definitely not for everyone, but if you're willing to give it a shot, you'll probably be charmed by Paul as well. He's completely imperfect, he's mean to those who care most about him, but he keeps you drawn to him like a moth to a flame.

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