Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton: Part Two

Is it read-worth? Absolutely. The characters in this section of the overall story are so completely relatable. You can almost imagine yourself living their lives and being faced with the same decisions. What would you do if your religious beliefs told you not to do something that would save your life? What if everyone hated you for it?

Switching from Part One to Part Two of Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful was a complete and total tone shift. Unlike Part One, where everything comes across as familial and almost innocent, Part Two starts off a little bit sexy. To be perfectly honest, the transition was a little bit jarring for me. Again, I wasn’t expecting this to be a collection of short stories. I was expecting a novel. The back of the book didn’t set me up for an easy comprehension of what was happening. I was confused as to the change in writing style and, during my first read-through, kept wondering where Julia and Evan were. That was my fault, though, for not looking into this book before buying, but it was a bit difficult to understand as a reader.

I’ll save you the trouble: STRONGER, FASTER, AND MORE BEAUTIFUL IS A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES.

And very well written ones at that. Once I got past the original confusion, I loved this second part of the collection. I especially enjoyed the way it is written. It starts off at the moment before a big event and then keeps going back in time to explain the background story. The main character, Milla, keeps warning you that you’re going to hate her for what happens. Spoiler alert: I didn’t, but I can see how many people would. 

Plus, it was really nice to have a completely normal girl as the main character in a book. It is especially nice in comparison to Midnight Sun where the emphasis is always on how different Bella is than other girls. I’ve been reading that lately and I don’t particularly enjoy books that spit out “not like other girls” rhetoric. I like reading about normal girls. I like the fact that Milla would normally blend into the crowd. I like imagining regular people in extraordinary circumstances. It feels more real to me than anything else.  It feels more like I could be her.

I really do recommend reading this collection so far. It’s extremely interesting and the writing is just phenomenal. Even with the tone shifts, I have enjoyed both parts I’ve read so far. And once you have read it, read the rest of my review below so we can talk about it!

SPOILER ALERT

Like I was saying, I really enjoyed Milla as a character. She seemed so completely normal. There she was, in a coffee shop, watching a book who hasn’t noticed her yet. It seemed to me like she had a crush. She is just a completely average, normal girl who’s a little bit nerdy and a little bit smart and a little bit pretty, but mostly just blends into the crowd. She could be anyone. I felt like I could relate to her. 

When she mentions her mesh line at first, I mostly just glazed right over it. I didn’t understand what that meant, but it couldn’t be that important? It was mentioned so casually I hardly noticed it the first time through. But then it ends up that it matters quite a bit. 

Milla had been in a horrific car accident a while back. She almost died, but, due to modern science, it was possible to replace her more damaged parts, such as her heart and eye, with new parts that were 50% artificially grown and 50% “her.” A mesh line is almost like a regulatory device between the “not so real” parts of Milla and the parts that are 100% herself. It’s a wonderful, life-saving technological innovation, but it comes out later in this part of the collection that not everyone agrees with the procedure. Some hate them. People like Reverand Tadd, the religious figure from the first part, believe that procedures go against God’s plan. The people who have them done are cursed to hell. 

It comes out that the boy Milla was staring at in the opening passage was Gabriel, someone she had been on a date with the night before. When she arrived at school that morning, Milla was barraged by her fellow students. Her friend, Lily, asked her “Did you really Milla? You hardly even know him.” Boys point and make gestures. Everyone seems in on a secret that the reader is not yet privy to. And I love the suspense. 

Strangely enough, it’s mentioned at this time that Milla is unable to blush, the second clue towards her current state. She says that “in her current configuration” it is almost impossible to do so. She also cannot cry. Her emotions seem to be locked down because of the mesh line. 

One kid, a person who was supposed to be her friend, mimics a robot vagina crushing a penis. It is a crude and disturbing thing to imagine, but these little details make the story much more realistic. Teenagers can be incredibly cruel, especially in regards to female sexuality. People in general can be extremely cruel to those they deem other than themselves. I really enjoyed the fact that, even with these clues, I didn’t really understand completely what was happening. The reason Milla was being mercilessly mocked had not come out yet. What the heck is a robot vagina?

I also liked reading about Gabriel and Milla’s date. It was easy to imagine myself in Milla’s shoes. Her crush on Gabriel seemed cute and understandable, almost like a long-distance crush that girls often have in middle and high school. He was cute and likable, but always seemed unreachable to her before her procedure. She couldn’t quite have him. Other girls liked him too. It was even rumored that he had girlfriends at other schools. He had never seemed to notice Milla. It all felt very approachable and honest. 

But the infusion of science fiction, Milla’s procedure, is what actually seemed to make Gabriel notice her and I liked that as well. It seemed to add a little bit to the power of such an intense medical procedure. Unbeknownst to him, the reason why she seemed more attractive and noticeable after returning to the hospital was that her eyes had been damaged in the car accident. Everyone at school thought only her legs and jaw were damaged. But she had actually lost one of her eyes and, because of that, the doctor performing the operations replaced both so that they would look like a matching set. It had the bonus of making her face more symmetrical and slightly improving her looks. It may have been a shallow reason for Gabriel to notice her, but that felt completely lifelike for the actions of a teenage boy. We’re all a little bit shallow sometimes.

It was also interesting that this section of the short story collection included such a large amount of religious background in it. Milla herself was named after St. Ludmilla of Bohemia who brought Christianity to her people. It is odd to think that Milla herself could have been the first student to bring those procedures to her school. Somewhat ironic maybe. During their date, Gabriel and Milla listened to the sermons of Reverend Tadd, warning of the spiritual danger of these medical procedures. He warned people that they would be doomed to hell if they approved of these procedures let alone had them. Fake livers and hearts and eyes were against Jesus. Just Milla being able to breathe violated his religious beliefs.

Milla and Gabriel had a theological debate regarding these issues, drawing away from their kissing. It came to Milla’s attention that Gabriel’s grandmother had extremely strong views against the procedure. She believed people with mesh lines were demons and that it was against God’s plans to save lives in this manner. Gabriel seemed unwilling or incapable of disagreeing with her views which seemed to wound Milla. Gabriel’s grandmother openly hated people who have had it done.

This felt very real in a plethora of ways. First is the fact that religious beliefs do stop scientific exploration and discovery from taking place. Stem cell research in particular has been partially prevented, especially in the US, due to people’s religious beliefs. Even though the results of this research could save a million lives, and improve the lives of many more, many people believe that it’s against God’s plan to delve into it too deeply. We cannot play God in this manner. I don’t necessarily agree with this perspective, personally. I think we should use every tool at our disposal to save and improve lives. I’m not super religious, but I can’t imagine a God who would give us such wonderful tools just to ignore them. I do understand that any type of stem cell research, or this procedure as discussed, comes with its own risks though. What is our limit? Do we have one? 

It also felt real because it seemed like this hatred towards people who have the procedure done was extremely similar in nature to racism or sexism. People hate other people just for one arbitrary reason. Many wouldn’t give Milla the chance to explain, or care. As she states, “How do I tell people that I’m so grateful to be alive, when I know they’ll never be able to look at me with anything but pity or, or, or judgement from here on out?” It’s such a powerful line and it struck me with how true it is. Because of her procedure, Milla will be judged the rest of her life. She cannot save herself from it.

Gabriel’s reaction to that seemed so kind and caring at first as well. He came across as so sympathetic and understanding. At least, until they had sex. And then I hated him.

He told her that, because she had robotic parts and had undergone such an invasive procedure, that it wasn’t like them having sex should be a big moment for her. She had already lost her virginity to either a doctor or a surgical device. Not to him. She was already damaged goods, based on the way he described it. I hate that. First off, women aren’t defined by their virginity. I understand that, as students of a Christian school, they might put a lot of weight on it, but it just comes across sexist and gross. The fact that her undermined her feelings immediately after having sex with her was degrading and cruel. It also shows how deeply rooted the prejudice against people with this procedure is in their society. She is less valuable, as a woman, because she has a mesh line. Yuck. 

And she begs him, afterwards, not to tell anyone about her procedure. He promises. And then he proceeds to tell everyone.

It is so startlingly real and cruel. Teenage boys do this to girls all the time. They brag about their hookups and act like the girl is a slut. It’s hypocritical and disgusting. But Gabriel’s actions are especially disgusting because of how he adds insult to injury with his descriptions of the sex. He tells his friends that she begged him to have sex with her, that she wanted to finally lose her human virginity. He tells fellow students that Milla is trying to convince herself that she’s a real girl, but based on how the sex felt? She’s anything but. 

It’s revolting. 

And I think it’s very honest and telling. It’s extremely relatable for how social interactions work today. People will always be cruel. 

But people will always be kind too. I really liked Mr. Kinross, the headmaster, as a character. He is introduced when he asks to speak with Milla after her interaction with Gabriel in the lunchyard. He tries to soften the blow of her peers’ words and comes across as such a genuinely kind person. He reminded me a lot of the teachers I’ve had throughout my school years. They care. Plus, I completely agreed with his line, “Something ugly is happening in our world… If God gave us minds, should we not embrace the fruits of those minds? Surely it is a mercy and a beautiful calling, to minister to the injured and the ill? … And yet, I see families with an entirely different view. They have taken it upon themselves to decide what God allows – which is surely exactly what they accuse doctors of doing.” It is a powerful statement and I can only imagine that his words would stick to Milla as she grows up. She’ll remember this small kindness and these impactful words Mr. Kinross spoke to her will resonate with her as she grows older. During her worst moments, she might even remember that her life is a miracle and not a curse. Even with the cold-heartedness others will show her, it is a miracle that she is still alive. 

It’s just a really wonderful scene. 

However, I feel like I could have done without the ending of this section. I kind of wanted this part of the overall connection to stay true to how people feel about those who have undergone the procedure. When Milla pushes Gabriel in front of a bus and he has to undergo a similar procedure himself, he apologizes to Milla and admits the reason why he told everyone about their sex and her mesh line. He didn’t want his grandmother to find out and he felt like she would know immediately. If he played it off like he was coerced into it instead, maybe it would lessen the blow of her disapproval. Maybe others wouldn’t ridicule him for it. 

But I didn’t need this addition. I didn’t need the hypocrisy of people’s beliefs to be beaten into me here. I understand that most people will take the chance to live or to save the lives of their families when given it. I really would have liked it if the author remained true to the core of this story: the hate and prejudices survivors will face. That felt more honest to me for this part of the overall story. Hypocrisy could be saved for other sections. 

However, I didn’t hate it. I just wish it was a little bit different overall. It was still excellent writing and I still understood the point of this storyline. It was definitely worth the read. 

Now, after I’ve already read this entire section of the story, I do find myself thinking about the fact that so much of the religious importance of virginity was ignored in exchange for the religious beliefs surrounding the procedure Milla faced. Not once did any of the students really ridicule her sexuality or call attention to that sin. They might have been shocked that she had sex with Gabriel after one date, but it didn’t feel like the normal amount of vicirol towards young women who have sex face. I wonder if the importance of virginity has decreased in comparison to the existence of such a technologically advanced procedure. Do they not care about the sin of premarital sex anymore? Does the religious community only care about this medical procedure? Even Gabriel, who was so embarrassed and ashamed to have sex with someone with a mesh line, didn’t seem to be embarrassed by his grandmother knowing he’s had sex. Are they weighing sins in their favor? I’m just curious and I wonder if future chapters will address the changing priorities of the religious community.