Beta (by Rachel Cohn)

1 10 2012

The name Rachel Cohn used to be synonymous with contemporary urban YA fiction with a bit of a edge. Her Gingerbread series starred the rawer than raw punky teen rebel Cyd Charisse, and when she wrote together with David Levithan, it was Cohn who added the edge, resulting in almost perfect contemporary YA romance novels (Nick & Norah, and Dash and Lily especially are prime examples). In more ways than one Rachel Cohn seems to break with that reputation with her upcoming series of books, of which Beta is the first.

Genre-wise, Beta is nothing like anything Cohn has ever written (or published at least). For the first time, Cohn is well on her way to write dystopian romance (yes, that old thing again). With Beta we enter the perfect world of Demesne, where clones are created from a First (a dead person) in a laboratory with the sole purpose of serving the super-rich inhabitants of the perfectly engineered island. Elysia is a Beta, a new type of teen clone. Like all the other clones, though, she was engineered to be soul-less and to serve. In her case she is bought by a rich family who wants her to be a (more) perfect replacement for their daughter Astrid who’s gone off to the mainland to study (Astrid, BTW, is the absent character of this book – I’ll bet you she’s going to be majorly important in the sequels). Clones are designed not to feel real emotions, but to mimic feelings and emotions based on certain bio-engineered implants they have. However, Elysia not only starts to really feel certain things, she also has memories of her First, something which should be impossible… and yet.

From the very beginning of the book it is clear that these soul-less clones do have a certain form of self-consciousness. When Elysia feels sad for leaving another Beta she says: “I know the reaction occurs because my chip knows how to mimic human responses, and not because I am capable of actually missing Becky. We feel nothing for one another. We don’t need to. I don’t know why my stomach also experiences a hollow emptiness at the thought of leaving this other Beta. There is so much for me to learn – about this island, about my own body chemistry. I am so new.” (p.6).  The observant reader of course knows that Elysia is really feeling anxious for what is going to happen to her. The fact that the story is told in the first person, by Elysia, is an early indication that creating soulless, emotionless beings – even clones – is an illusion, and Elysia will indeed encounter numerous ‘Defects’, just like her. Elysia, the new-born clone is the perfect metaphor for the life of the teenager she was created from: looking at things with fresh eyes,  having incomprehensible conflicting emotions, thinking of rebelling against established orders, making the wrong choices (like e.g. deciding to break free because of a boy, not because it is her own choice – which I for one, was very disappointed by to read!). Elysia is the perfect empty art canvas, and being a teen clone, she is ‘still under development’, just like a regular teenager.

Elysia’s voice is in the beginning of the novel the perfect vessel to set the scene: we get to know the idyllic Demesne the way she gets to know Demesne. Her voice is detached, cool even, which is in tune with the soul-less aspect of being a clone. Through her voice, we learn that Demesne was designed to be perfect: there is, for example, oxygen-enriched air to give “the human body and mind a constant feeling of bliss” (p.22), The air on Demesne is its very own soma. Despite the blissful state of affairs, teens on Demesne still feel the need to transgress by doing “‘raxia”, though, a type of drugs designed to reach true ‘ataraxia’ (happiness)…well, it sort of mimics the effect chocolate has on the brain… The fact that there are such detailed descriptions and elaborate explanations of life on Demesne, causes the book  to have a fairly slow start. It takes a good 150 pages before the story can really take off.

The story we get in the second half of the book is unfortunately not the most original one (kind of AI meets I Robot) and Elysia’s story is prone to rely on coincidences to really advance. Actually to be honest, the whole book feels too formulaic, and that is because one crucial element is missing: Rachel Cohn’s voice. I know, we see what Elysia – the newborn clone – is supposed to see, and as such this book works the way it is supposed to work. It’s Elysia’s voice: from cool and detached to something more than that at the end when it’s clear she’s not just a teen Beta, and has real emotions, can fall in love and yearn like any other teenager. However, that doesn’t exactly make for the most exciting reading material. Oh, the story flows and ebbs nicely enough, but there is very little that sets it apart from other books in the same genre – not even Elysia’s ‘new voice’. What I need in especially this beaten down genre of dystopian romance is something that sets it apart from the rest. I don’t want middle-of-the-road stuff, I want a unique reading experience.

I’ve known Rachel Cohn to be a writer with a unique voice, one whose voice can lift teen romance to a real ‘raxia type of reading experience. *That* is what I want. I don’t want great writers being content with yet another dystopian series just because it’s hot at the moment. It might sell (just like e.g. Lauren Oliver’s Delirium sells like hotcakes), but in my opinion, it doesn’t show the author on top of her game.  I have the exact same objections I had with Beta as I had with Lauren Oliver’s Delirium. I don’t want yet another one of those books. I want a Rachel Cohn book, with Rachel Cohn at the top of her game, not something derivative or formulaic.

Beta is scheduled to come out on 16 October 2012.

Review based on ARC received on NetGalley.

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16 04 2013
Very LeFreak (by Rachel Cohn) | Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] may have fallen out of love with Rachel Cohn, because this book… not the first time I was majorly let down with what I’d hoped to be a fresh take on an old tale: addiction. In Very’s case the addiction […]

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