Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Second Nature: A Love Story—
A Young Woman’s Emotional Search for Identity

Syndicated columnist, Jacquelyn Mitchard became a household name in 1996 when Oprah named her debut novel, The Deep End of the Ocean as her first book club choice. It became an instant New York Times bestseller, and three years later, a successful feature film produced and starring Michelle Pfeiffer.

I did not get caught up in the hoopla surrounding the Deep End novel until after the movie’s release since, being a new mother, stories about kidnapped children were not high on my list. It wasn’t until I read a review for the  film and learned (spoiler alert!) that the kidnapped child is actually found, that I could finally pick up the book. I’ve been hooked on Mitchard ever since. I was fascinated by the story’s twist, and the many questions it posed. OK, the child has been found, unharmed. But what scars lie deep inside him, how does he return to his place in the family, what are the parents going through, and how are the siblings handling all this? Now there’s a story.

Mitchard’s subsequent novels have also captivated her fans, new and old alike. And, come September 6th, her brand new, thought-provoking novel that mixes modern medicine with the basics of human emotions and identity hits the stands.

Second Nature: A Love Story (Random House), readers are instantly pulled into the story of Sicily Coyne as she and her classmates experience a devastating fire that instantly ends some lives and changes others in a Chicago neighborhood. With a face horribly burned, Sicily forges ahead and creates a life for herself, though it’s a life of darkness and avoidance. Even every day words have to be substituted since without lips, she cannot form certain sounds.

One day, Sicily is asked whether she’d be interested in a face transplant by a highly skilled face transplant team. Our heroine is now torn between staying in her contented, yet limited world, or taking the chance not only to endure severe pain and months of healing and rehab, but also the possibility of a loss of self. Kit, a best friend of Sicily, brings up a real moment of truth when she tells Sicily that by having the face transplant, her own status of being friends with a disfigured girl will be lessened. Throughout the book, readers will want to have a highlighter nearby to mark some truly honest observations on being human, like this thought by Sicily: “Not until I was grown did I begin to understand that a crisis without margins is intolerable to the human temperament.”

Book clubs will love this book!

Mitchard, again, does not follow a predictable path and lovers of well-crafted and captivated stories will not be disappointed.

In an email conversation, I posed these questions to Mitchard.

How in the world did such a story come to you?  There must’ve been an “aha” moment…

It was not at all. It was the 50-year accumulation of an obsession, coupled with a question of extraordinary poignancy. When I was so little it’s difficult to recall if this was a real memory, there was a fire at a school near where I lived on the west side of Chicago, called Our Lady of Angels. Everyone in that neighborhood was marked by that fire, which killed ninety-two kids and three teaching sisters, the second worst school fire in history, not just in the USA, but anywhere. It was a huge, transformative event, not just for those who lost a brother, a child, a cousin, friend, neighbor, but for those who survived and were forever changed, marked psychically by having been one of those who knew something no one ever should know. People moved, not just to the suburbs, but to Florida, to Toronto. The event was too horrible for the place to become a shrine. The Life magazine cover, of a firefighter carrying a child who looked asleep, unmarked … that was in a hope chest in my house. That was the first image.

And then, I thought about different kinds of transformation. I have very few lifelong friends: one of them, Stacey Kain Sweeney, died at Christmas after four years in a persistent vegetative state, caused when a rare form of strep and a diabetic reaction caused her to have a heart attack. She was only 40, with a 20 month old daughter, my godchild. Stacey was exquisite, model-beautiful, and … I thought about that beautiful face. What if another person, who had been burned or disfigured, was given the gift of that 200 square inches of tissue, that, after all, would never be used again in the world? Would that have been a kind of immortality? We have these funny feelings about the face. It’s the most private, mythic part of the body. People who would think nothing of donating a kidney if a loved person was, heaven forbid this, mortally injured, would balk at donating that person’s face. People give birth on TV, but are very private about faces. So I thought, what if this was a presumptive future, not too far from now, when these procedures, to help people with burns, especially with burns, was not only aesthetically but functionally excellent? If someone has a heart transplant, it isn’t on Oprah. It happens ten, twenty times a day. And unlike a heart transplant, a soft-tissue transplant would probably be lifelong, not eight or nine years. It will happen. One day, this surgery will not be a rarity.

You were able to get into her head and consider some very deep philosophical thoughts about appearances, what defines a person, etc..  Are those thoughts that you’ve always had, or did they emerge when you created Sicily, and her character grew?

For this purpose, I had to think a great deal about identity. I thought about being surprised by my own face in the mirror. I even (this is nutty) wore a blond wig for a few days so that whenever I passed a mirror, it would stop me. Sicily already had a very defined, very assertive personality. Half of people who are disfigured are that way; they become more like who they already are, and as a result, often they attract so-called “normal” people who can see past their outward appearance. People want some of that spirit. Others are literally driven into hiding. They become intensely depressed, reclusive, suicidal. For Sicily, I felt that it would be after she underwent the transplant that she would experience complex feelings of identity confusion, survivor guilt, remorse and depression. As she says, she would feel “all dressed up with no place to go,” wasting the donor Emma’s precious gift. One person said the love story was absurd, that no one would love a girl who’d had a face transplant. And that’s utterly untrue.

What was the research period like?  The details are many, yet are explained clearly, almost as if you were familiar with them already.

Oh, the research period was long and nearly made me nutty. I had to immerse myself in the medical. I like science, and I know my science, to a degree, but this was very complicated stuff, especially the kind of anti-rejection protocol that might allow a young woman to live a normal life after a face transplant, including having a child. I spent days interviewing anaplastologists, who make noses, ears and even once, a prosthetic finger for a bride on her wedding day, works of art, even to using tiny, tiny wires to simulate veins and capillaries that you don’t even notice on your own nose, but which, if they weren’t there, would make you look like you had a rubber bulb glued to your face. I spent long hours with firefighters, in their culture, understanding how they are both the most cautious people on earth and utter adrenalin junkies. I used to fall asleep with the scanner on, like Sicily. This was six solid months of research, and while I do love the research period, this was … enough. People can say, well, I hated that. But they can’t say I got it wrong. Fiction is an invisible house, but you have to be able to live there. It has to have plumbing and countertops and houseplants and a toaster. They all have to work.

Please fill in the blank, “I believe all of my novels have one thing in common, and that is that _________________________.”  Or maybe they don’t share anything in particular, and are very separate beings.

At least one of the characters will experience the truth of the old axiom, be careful what you wish for, for you will surely get it.

Second Nature: A Love Story hits the stands September 6, 2011. Preorder on Amazon.

About MJ Hanley-Goff (85 Articles)
MJ Hanley-Goff has been contributing to WomanAroundTown since its inception in 2009. She began her career at Newsday and for ten years wrote for the Sunday Real Estate section. A move to the Hudson Valley brought her to the Times Herald-Record where she continued to write for a Sunday Real Estate section, and also joined the writing team at the monthly Orange Magazine. MJ then became editor of Hudson Valley Parent magazine, and contributed articles to Hudson Valley Magazine, AAA’s Car & Travel, and Tri-County Woman. After completing her novel and a self-help book, she created MJWRITES, INC. and conducts writing workshops, and as a self-proclaimed book “whisperer,” works with new writers on their books. Now back on Long Island, she continues to enjoy the opportunity to write for Woman Around Town, and the amazing adventures it offers, including reviewing concerts, events, and tourist attractions in New York, and around the world. “I particularly enjoy drawing attention to the off the beaten path kinds of events and experiences,” she says. “It’s great big world out there, with so many talented and creative artists, doers, and thinkers.”