“You know what I liked about your aunt?” Kiran said. “She always seemed like she knew exactly what she was going to do next. She made you feel like that it was possible, to know the right choice.” (p. 11)
At the opening of Kristin Cashore’s Jane, Unlimited, Jane is grieving for her aunt, Magnolia, who had raised her since infancy. Happiness and choice seem entirely curtailed; and when Jane former tutor, Kiran, invites Jane with the embarrassingly thoughtless generosity of the very rich to her family house, Tu Reviens, for a stay of undetermined duration, Jane’s acceptance isn’t really a choice, either.
But Jane has all the choices in the worlds.
Jane, Unlimited is invigoratingly experimental. The narrative structure retains the feel of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story of its initial draft (thankfully without the inevitable, multifarious “and you die” conclusions I somehow always ended up on) and yet is one story, meant to be read cover to cover.
Or five stories, as Jane chooses one question or person to pursue.
*Trying not to fangirl too hard* The six stories (the one that leads up to the moment of choice, and the five that ensue) inform each other: there are plot details, sounds Jane hears, snippets of dialogue, and background oddities which Jane and the reader, in any given story, do not understand. It isn’t until you have read the whole that all the clues picked up come together. Reading each section is like a treasure hunt: you are constantly piecing together little things that are going on in Tu Reviens that are not part of your current story; your story makes illuminates the others, and is illuminated by them.
The format is also an elaborate game of genre.* Each of the five choices is a different genre**, with a distinctly different feel to the narrative even though what the reader experiences is heavily filtered through Jane’s experiences. The story, in this way, strongly mirrors life. We never know the whole story, or the significance of a thousand details we may or may not recognize as significant, just as in any of the five end-stories, Jane only knows that chosen part of what is going on in the house. Comparing our perceptions with those of trusted friends gives a larger piece of the picture, as does, in the novel, reading subsequent sections. And the choices we make in life – and the ways in which we frame our experiences – set the tone and genre, if you will, of our lives. Or, at least, the next section of our lives. (Happily, we can change genre, as does Jane.)
Getting too meta? The story is downright fun. I loved getting to know Jane as an artist who designs and builds umbrellas. Kiran is fabulous and I would like a whole novel about her, please. *gives Kristin Cashore the bambi eyes*
The supporting characters are fleshed out and fascinating; their dialogue is just. Wow.
“I think the lesson here is that when someone offers you a job creating new and exciting strains of smallpox, say no,” says Kiran. (p. 242)
This review narrowly avoided being solely a series of quotes. Kiran especially has a way of saying exactly the right thing. Ivy, who works at the house, has an entirely endearing love affair with Scrabble and, consequently, with unusual and high-points words.
The slender, enduring thread of new-love-story that runs through ALL THE PLOTS is just heart-warming. (ALL THE PLOTS, okay, in EVERY SINGLE POSSIBLE SCENARIO we get a very sweet queer romance.)*** In every single possible scenario we get odd and oddly perfect friendship. And sibling relationships. And girl-dog companionship. Questions of identity, sprawled all over the place, are examined as a communal phenomenon: Who am I? is not a solitary pursuit of me, myself, and I, but the lovingly constructed result of relationships.
Relationships which stumble along, even when everyone involved has a secret or three.
“It’s ridiculous, the questions he won’t answer. ‘What did you do last evening, Patrick?’ ‘Why are you running around the house shining flashlights into all the closets, Patrick?’ ‘Where were you that time you disappeared for three days, Patrick?’ I mean, I respect his privacy. But it’s not like the questions I ask are nosy. We grew up together. I’m his friend. I don’t even need to know! I trust his reasons are good ones, whatever stupid thing he’s doing. But it’s hard that he doesn’t trust me.” (p. 222)
Note: I received an ARC of Jane, Unlimited from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Footnotes and other stuff:
ALSO! If anyone else has read Jane, Unlimited, want to talk about the hints that Jane’s universe isn’t ours?
*Writers and teachers, take note! There are a giddying number of exercises that you could build for yourself or your students based on Jane, Unlimited.
**Putting it here to avoid unintentional spoilers: the genres I identified were: the heist story (or anti-heist story)/art coup; the spy story; the horror story; the sci-fi/polyverse; the portal fantasy. Figuring this out was so cool.
***Possibly POC romance? Jane’s ethnicity and appearance are not divulged, and she always notes when someone is white.
When [Jane] was little, Aunt Mgnolia would stroke her hair, telling her to pretend that her lungs were a jellyfish, slowly swelling and emptying as they moved through underwater space. “Your body is a microcosm of the ocean,” she used to say. Jane would fall asleep with Aunt Magnolia’s hand in her hair, imagining herself the entire ocean, vast and quiet. (p. 49)