Wednesday, August 21, 2013

YA Guy Reviews... WHAT'S LEFT OF ME by Kat Zhang

With the start of the fall semester, YA Guy's going to have to scale back the frequency of my book reviews--from one every Wednesday to one every other Wednesday (or even one a month if things get really dicey!). For now, though, enjoy this review of Kat Zhang's WHAT'S LEFT OF ME!

Kat Zhang was nineteen when she sold The Hybrid Chronicles to HarperCollins.

Let me repeat that.


To put this in perspective, when YA Guy was nineteen, my main accomplishment was sneaking into a classmate’s dorm room and moving all his furniture onto his balcony. I’d written novels, sure--I insulted my freshman philosophy professor by finishing a novel for a young writer’s competition rather than writing a paper for his class--but I was certainly not selling them to HarperCollins.

Zhang’s accomplishment would be noteworthy even if the first book in the series, What’s Left of Me, were no better than average. I mean, come on. I teach freshman composition these days. I’m not looking for miracles.

But What’s Left of Me is much, much better than average. It’s excellent. The concept, the writing, the plotting, the pacing, the characters: all excellent.

Now that’s something.

In Zhang’s book, we’re taken to a not-far-future world where people are born with two souls (or personae, if you prefer) cohabiting a single body. The recessive persona typically “dies” before the teen years, leaving the dominant persona in complete control. But in the case of protagonist Addie/Eva, the supposedly recessive soul, Eva, remains: locked within a shared mind, able to communicate with Addie and experience everything she does, but unable to communicate with the rest of the world or move a muscle of their body. The two are what their society terms a hybrid: a feared and shunned being believed to be the cause of earlier wars of destruction. If ever their hybrid nature is discovered, Addie and Eva will be subject to incarceration, experimentation… or worse.

There’s so much to like about What’s Left of Me, but I want to focus on the strengths my fourteen-year-old daughter (herself an aspiring writer who met Zhang at a young authors event) succinctly described: “It’s really well-written!” It was a brilliant decision to have Eva, the recessive soul, narrate What’s Left of Me: her desire to return to full life, to re-experience the autonomy she knew as a child, provides the book a compelling narrative drive. And the lyrical language of the book brilliantly expresses the strange condition of being two-in-one, both intimate and separate, as in the opening words of the prologue:

Addie and I were born into the same body, our souls’ ghostly fingers entwined before we gasped our very first breath. Our earliest years together were also our happiest. Then came the worries--the tightness around our parents’ mouths, the frowns lining our kindergarten teacher’s forehead, the question everyone whispered when they thought we couldn’t hear.

Why aren’t they settling?


We tried to form the word in our five-year-old mouth, tasting it on our tongue.


We knew what it meant. Kind of. It meant one of us was supposed to take control. It meant the other was supposed to fade away.

That’s really good stuff. And it gets even better.

What’s Left of Me isn’t perfect. I found parts of the book, particularly the extended sequence in a psychiatric institution, not wholly convincing; so totalitarian a society, I felt, could not have run one of its premier institutions so tentatively, indeed ineptly. And I was never entirely sure what the origin or significance of hybridity was; there seemed no rational explanation for why people in this society are born double, which made me fear the book was using the condition as allegory. Perhaps the second book in the series will help resolve this question.

But whether it does or not, What’s Left of Me proves beyond doubt that Zhang is for real. And that being the case, we can all be thankful she got started so early sharing her words with the world.


  1. Kat is so super sweet!! I can't wait to read this book!! Must grow a second set of eyes so I can read more! ;)

  2. This sounds great! Will definitely add it to my kids' reading lists. They're both plowing through "Code Name Verity" now and will be looking for something new soon.

    As far as totalitarian institutions: didn't the Soviet Union run lots of things very badly? And North Korea, too, isn't known for efficiency. I think it's a bit of a myth that dictatorships make trains run on time.

    -Steph (of the Writing Sisterhood)

    1. Good point, Stephanie. To clarify, I guess my feeling was that the psych ward in WLOM suffered less from institutional ineptitude (which might have been convincing) than from the unwillingness of the individuals involved to be ruthless (which might have made sense dramatically, especially in YA, but not historically). The Soviet Union may have run the gulags poorly, but this wasn't because of any lack of malice and evil intent.

  3. I've been wanting to read this for ages--thanks for the awesome review! And, yeah, definitely not selling books to HC at 19. Yeesh. :)

    1. Thanks for the comment, Meradeth. This is a definite must-read, and I'm betting the sequel (due out in September) will be even better!