The Body Snatchers (1955) by Jack Finney
* More commonly referred to as ‘Invasion of the body snatchers’
If the person closest to you was replaced by someone (or something) that shared the exact same appearance, speech, memories, and mannerisms as them would you know? And how exactly would you know? Jack Finney’s 1955 novel begins with this predicament and all the paranoia that follows.
Set in the small town of Santa Mira in California and narrated by the town’s local doctor Dr. Miles Bennell, an unusual case is brought to his attention after-hours one night. A local resident is convinced that her uncle isn’t really her uncle, in the sense that he has been replaced with a doppelganger who looks, talks, and remembers just like him, but something is off, something in the way this new uncle reacts, something is missing from his emotion according to the patient. Of course, the first reaction from the doctor is to suspect a sort of psychosis in the patient but soon after this more and more people across the town begin to suspect their relatives and loved ones have indeed been replaced by impostors. What could be the cause of this mass belief in imposters?
The first couple of chapters of the novel were well executed, drawing in the reader to this small town and setting up the core mystery of the premise. However the majority of the novel is quite drawn out and boring as near the midpoint of the story it takes a sharp decline in pacing and focuses more on exposition of the town and main characters which aren’t very interesting in themselves.
The main characters in the story are our protagonist Miles (The Doctor), a recent divorcee with a particular distaste for the always-on-call nature of his vocation who spends most of the novel objectifying his love interest Becky, a stereotypical ‘damsel in distress’ caricature (remember it’s the 1950s misogyny was nothing out of the ordinary) utterly incapable of being on her own and relying on Miles (whom she loves of course) for everything. Finney tries to add an extra dimension to her very late in the novel by involving her in a plan with Miles to escape captivity, but this sudden turn of courage for the character comes out of nowhere and after portraying her for the most part as helpless it’s hard to believe this change in nature. The remaining main characters of the novel are Jack, a paranoid writer who mostly plays the part of chauffer and his wife, who’s just as forgettable as Becky.
The story is too often broke up by flashbacks and anecdotes from the main character, these are generally not done very well and come off as jarring to the structure of the novel. More than once I found myself rolling my eyes as the main character went off on an internal rant at crucial points in the story. The author keeps toying with the notion that ‘it’s all not real’ long after it’s proven otherwise. We revisit this idea a few too many times throughout the novel and it grows tiresome after the third or fourth iteration of the main character being in a situation whereby there is an attempt to convince him (and the reader) that it’s all just a big misunderstanding.
The final stretch of the novel increases the intensity and is pretty thrilling for the most part, it plays out as a sort of ‘hide-and-seek’ segment with our main character being hunted throughout the town and trying to escape. However, this intensity quickly falls apart as the ending literally comes out of nowhere, it’s a Deus ex Machina that’s completely nonsensical. It feels tacked on for the sole purpose of the novel having an unlikely ‘happy ending’. Overall I can’t really recommend this novel. It has a really solid concept and the subtext of aliens, doppelgangers, and the paranoia that ensues is a great tool in the sci-fi/thriller genre, but I found the execution to be quite lacking. Other than the first few opening chapters I found it to be rather bland and underwhelming. The characters aren’t very interesting and are usually one-note. The sharp decline in pacing and activity around the midpoint of the novel leads to a lot of time wasted meandering between exposition and fleshing out the handful of bland characters we have. Top this off with an ending that will make you physically cringe and I’d say it’s better to skip this one.
~ Giuseppe Gillespie October 2021