Chapter 16
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What Makes Us Who We Are?

In her debut novel, Memphis native Moriah McStay explores the way our experiences shape us

In Moriah McStay’s debut novel, Everything That Makes You, high-school junior Fiona Doyle retreats into writing song lyrics that reveal the feelings she is too shy to express in person. One half of her face was burned in a horrific accident when she was a child, and she’s sure that her scars are all anyone sees when they look at her. She can barely bring herself to speak to her long-time crush, Trent MacKinnon, even when they’re assigned to do a group project together. Her mother keeps trying to turn her into someone she isn’t—a pretty girl who wears dressy clothes. The only people who seem to accept her as she is are Ryan, her brother, and Lucy, her best friend. Life would have been so much better if somehow she had escaped being burned that long-ago day.

Or would it?

This question has been explored in many works of literature, from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to It’s a Wonderful Life to the current Broadway hit If/Then. In her novel, McStay explores both lives of her main character: the life she actually lived, and life as it would have been if she had escaped the accident that scarred her. In chapters that cover Fiona’s navigation of the end of high school and the beginning of college, we also follow an alternative protagonist: Fi, the girl Fiona would have been if she hadn’t been scarred.

Superficially the two versions of the protagonist seem quite different. Fi is self-confident where Fiona is self-conscious. Fiona earns excellent grades while Fi coasts, relying on lacrosse stardom to get her into Northwestern University on an athletic scholarship. In the parallel world, Fiona’s crush, Trent, is, Fi’s best friend, who seems to want more from her than friendship. Fi falls hard for Marcus, a boy with a mystery illness, while Fiona settles for nice but dull David. Fiona feels she lives in Ryan’s shadow, but the situation is reversed for Fi; in this version of the girl’s life, Ryan has to shake off the self-imposed label of “Fi’s little brother.”

But at heart the two girls are very similar. Each one has a passion: Fiona goes everywhere with her notebooks, writing song lyrics and planning to major in music; Fi lives for lacrosse. Both are thwarted in the pursuit of these passions, Fiona by a paralyzing self-consciousness that keeps her from performing, and Fi by a season-ending broken ankle. Each resents her mother’s attempts to “fix” her—to repair Fiona’s face surgically, or to make Fi look more feminine, in Fi’s world. Both resort to sarcasm when irritated.

As the two stories intertwine and characters from one “world” show up in a different context in the other, readers may get confused about which story they’re reading. This is especially true because the chapters tend to be short, and a reader might just be getting into Fiona’s character and situation when the narrative switches to Fi. This alternation also slows the momentum of the story, making some plot elements—Fiona’s decision about whether to have reconstructive surgery, Fi’s dilemma about whether to apply to Northwestern a year after her accident—take a long time to resolve.

Still, Everything That Makes You raises intriguing issues, and the characters—both Fiona and Fi, as well as the supporting cast—ring true. McStay, a Memphis native, clearly understands the questions of identity and destiny that plague not only teenagers but all thinking people. Interestingly, she subverts this questioning, when she has Fiona, the more introspective of the two, say, “If we tried to analyze how every little thing changes us, … nobody would get anything done.” Yet this is exactly what this novel leads readers to do.

Is it true, as Marcus’s twin brother, Jackson, says, that “in end we’re all just experiences. Some are crappy, some are great, some are just plain dumb. But the more you have, the more you are”? Or is there something innate in each of us that persists, despite the crappy, great, and just plain dumb experiences? We’ll never know. But readers of Everything That Makes You will be thinking about these questions long after closing the book.

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