Second Body, Sue Payer (1979)
Review by Ian Sales
As I read this book, I began to seriously doubt it was written by a woman. The way Second Body handles its central premise has “male gaze” emblazoned across it. Given that Payer apparently wrote nothing else – at least not under that name – it’s easy to imagine it’s a pseudonym, especially since the book’s copyright is held by its publishers, Tower Publications Inc. And yet there is a comment on the book’s page on goodreads.com by a woman who states Payer was her grandmother. So it seems Payer was indeed a real person, and a woman – and so Second Body is eligible for review on SF Mistressworks (although, to be fair, the mere fact of a woman credited on the cover as author would in most circumstance be enough). Quality-wise, however, perhaps Second Body is less fit for review…
On 28 May 1999, the back-cover blurb tells us, Wendy Anderson went into hospital to give birth to her second child. But the procedure goes badly wrong, and she dies on the operating table. At the same time, the body of Jennifer Bowman is brought into the same hospital. She had tumbled down a flight of stairs, suffered a head injury, and has now been pronounced brain-dead. So the doctors perform a procedure up to that point performed only on animal test subjects: they transplant Wendy’s head onto Jennifer’s body. The operation is kept secret from the press for twelve months in order to give the Anderson family time to adjust. The family also moves south to Florida and cuts all ties with their friends so that no one learns of the transplant. Because Wendy, once petite and “doll-like”, a “cuddle bunny”, now has a voluptuous body more than a foot taller.
So, of course, the novel is about Wendy’s husband coming to terms with a wife he no longer finds as physically attractive as he once did, just as much as it is Wendy getting used to her new height and measurements. To add insult to injury, a colleague at his new workplace is of the same body type – a “cuddle bunny” – that Wendy was before the operation. And if even that weren’t enough, Jennifer’s husband, Jack, coincidentally turns up in the Anderson’s new neighbourhood – and not only is he attracted to Wendy because she is his “type” but he eventually recognises her body as belonging to Jennifer. Which to him makes Wendy his wife:
“What do you want me to do – throw myself in your arms? You keep forgetting I’m Mark’s wife.”
“Part of you, I admit. However, I’ll be fair about it. Mark can have your mind. But give your body to me!”
For a long time I was too stunned to reply. I just sat there staring at Billy Bob’s picture on the wall. I knew, in his own mind, he thought he was justified. I was Jennifer to him, except from my chin to the curls on top of my head. (p 165)
Where to begin? With the fact that Wendy is the subject of the novel but nonetheless defines herself by her relationship to Mark, her husband. Or perhaps that Jack thinks his late wife’s body belongs to him, as if Wendy’s head atop it were no more than an accessory? That the two men in the novel seem attracted to women solely by their body-types seems a minor complaint in comparison.
Later, the neighbourhood wives complain that Wendy is too sexy, and they’re afraid she will ensnare their husbands – because if they philander it will, of course, be the woman’s fault:
“I know you can’t help how you’re built,” Marge continued. “The good Lord gave you your body.”
“It takes a heap of self-control to keep the Lord’s gift in shape,” I sighed. “Oh, for a gooey hot fudge sundae.”
“Actually, it isn’t just your build. It’s that innocent, little-girl face you have on top of all that stacking. An innocent face. A sinful figure. The combination is dynamite.” (p 202)
(I suspect the author was trying for irony here, since it was medical science that gave her Jennifer’s body. And Wendy’s moan about having to diet to stay in shape is a common refrain throughout the narrative – she frequently longs for her original body because she did not have to watch what she ate.)
Eventually, Mark comes to his senses, although not until after he makes pregnant the woman he is having an affair with – but it all works out to everyone’s satisfaction. She goes off to marry a childhood sweetheart who doesn’t mind that she’s about to have someone else’s baby. Jack, however, still presents a problem. So Wendy agrees to go on a date with him, to demonstrate to him that she is not Jennifer. This initially backfires, but then something seems to sink in – and, after some soul-searching, Jack realises that Wendy is not his Jennifer, that just because Wendy now has Jennifer’s body that does not make her his wife. (Wendy, incidentally, suggests Jack look into growing a clone of Jennifer so he can have her back – of course, he’d have to wait twenty years, but…)
So, a happy ending. Wendy and Mark are back together again, Wendy’s parents have been told of the transplant and have taken it in their stride, Jack has accepted that Jennifer is gone, and Jennifer herself even visits both Wendy and Jack as a ghost in order to assure both parties she is now free. An epilogue returns to the doctor who performed the transplant, and he and his secretary muse on the way things have turned out…
By all the laws of compensation, someone like Miss Brown should have acquired Jennifer’s body. He wondered how much it would have changed her life during the last thirty years. Would it have inspired her to let down her hair and become the wanton most men desire? Or would she gone on in the same prim way, living her romances vicariously from a safe distance?
As it was, she didn’t have a sexy bone in her body. S unfortunate, for she would have made some man an intelligent, devoted wife. She was not a homely woman, nor in any way repulsive. Yet one would never, reasonably, have considered making love to her. (p 243)
Second Body is structured as the testimonies of Wendy and Mark in alternating chapters. Neither are well-drawn characters – Mark is defined by his taste in women, Wendy is defined by her relationship with Mark. The setting is supposed to be 1999, but in all respects it resembles the time of writing – other than the whole body transplant thing, that is. The gender politics, however, are more 1950s than dawn of the twenty-first century. Throughout the novel, women’s appearances are highlighted, as if that were their most important characteristic. Even in Wendy’s testimony, she complains about having to diet to keep her figure because she wants to look sexy and attractive for husband Mark – except, of course, he doesn’t initially find her new body at all sexy. And that’s all the men see in their women – sexy bodies.
It’s hard to describe quite how offensive Second Body is. I will admit the cover art and back-cover blurb give some indication, and I wasn’t expecting an especially enlightened read when I picked up the book. In fact, I fully expected it to be bad. Even so, it still managed to surprise me with its deeply sexist treatment of its premise. Definitely one to avoid.