Jenny Shaw knows awkward. After she’s unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend at an airport (and at the curb, no less), the PR executive must put on a brave face to make it through a business trip to Seattle. Far from home and reeling from the betrayal, Jenny’s ardent wish is to be someone else — and somewhere else.
When the friendly Myra mistakes her for an old friend at the hotel where a high school reunion is taking place, Jenny temporarily becomes Jessie Morgan — the no-nonsense, outlandish and adventurous young woman a group of friends remember from ten years before. Under the guise that she’s gotten a nose job, Jenny easily sinks into Jessie’s role and basks in the camaraderie of having companions. But as the truth of Jessie’s past and disappearance unravels, so does Jenny’s identity — until she’s not sure where one woman ends and the other begins.
Allie Larkin’s Why Can’t I Be You is a fast-paced story centering on the importance of friendship. Larkin’s second novel, preceded by the lovely Stay, has similar themes: an awful break-up; a plucky heroine going through A Time (both Jessie and Jenny); a dog whose presence soothes others. The author’s trademark wit has created another cast of fully-realized characters that resonated with me — especially after I focused on suspending my disbelief.
Because that suspension? It’s a little necessary. The premise is that a woman from 3,000 miles away can impersonate someone else so well that a cast of old friends can’t spot the imposter. Physically similar but with seemingly little else in common, Jenny impulsively allows herself to be seen as Jessie because she’s lonely, adrift and unfulfilled. She doesn’t like her job, doesn’t think she’s in the right field, isn’t sure her one good “friend” is really a friend at all. Being embraced by a new circle allows her to feel, for the first time, how the warmth of friendship can color a whole life.
And I didn’t blame her for it. That was the weird part: I guess I should have been skeptical or worried for Jenny, thinking she was a colossal idiot for becoming an unwitting identity thief. But it was obvious that Myra, her newfound best buddy, was also searching for something: Jessie. The only rational explanation for why a group of people were completely duped into accepting Jenny is that Jessie herself had disappeared in a cloud of mystery, and they really wanted to see her again — so they did. Myra, Fish, Robbie and Heather each missed Jessie for a different reason, so they saw what they wanted to see.
I felt awful for Jenny. From the moment she’s ditched at the airport, I felt a kinship with her — and that is Larkin’s skill. Her female narrators are your buddies who can’t get their stuff together . . . but it’s not entirely their fault. Though I bonded more with Van in Stay, Jenny/Jessie was an interesting character — someone who became confident through the shared belief that she was confident. It’s the classic “fake it ’til you make it” — this thought that Jenny changed because of who the Seattle crew believed her to be. I kept waiting for the Big Reveal — for the shoe to drop — and that kept me in suspense. Quite simply, I had to know she was going to fix this.
Why Can’t I Be You is a transformation story — and a very satisfying one. Seeing Jenny’s progression was a treat, and I finished the book with a pleased head nod. Though I thought the subplot love story was just okay, I really appreciated that the true love story was of the platonic variety. Just go with the flow and allow Larkin’s ode to friendship to pluck at the heartstrings.
3.5 out of 5!