When I finished reading this, all I could do was agree with Laurie Halse Anderson's cover blurb - this was a wild ride, and absolutely magical.
Brewster "Bruiser" Rawlins was voted "Most Likely to get the Death Penalty" by the school - so when 16 year old Tennyson discovers the brute is dating his twin sister, Bronte, he's pissed and does everything possible to sabotage the relationship, from following the pair to mini-golf to making sure their dad knows the kid's brutal reputation. Bronte, however, insists the others don't know Bruiser - they don't know he's memorized "Howl" and how tenderly he cares for his little brother after their mother has died and they're living with a drunk uncle. Tennyson is reluctantly drawn to Bruiser, after seeing him in the locker room with his back covered in bruises and scars. As Bruiser becomes closer to Tennyson and Bronte, the twins start noticing strange things happening when he's around - their injuries heal and disappear quickly, while Bruiser adds new ones daily. And while their parents' marriage is crumbling, when Bruiser is around their problems don't seem to be so bad. Bruiser's friendships with Tennyson, Bronte and their family lead to complex questions about the meanings of friendship, family and pain.
I read this shortly after I finally got around to watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and found myself comparing the two in terms of tone and genre. Shusterman has written a story that has some very classical elements, combining a deathly serious story with the slightest touch of fantasy. There is no explanation for Bruiser's abilities, just like no real explanation is given for Benjamin's aging in the movie (and, I assume, the story on which its based). It's just something that exists, and in the face of undeniable evidence, Tennyson and Bronte accept it with little question. They acknowledge it's weird, and they wish they knew the how and why of it all, but when your twisted ankle heals itself in minutes while your boyfriend suddenly starts limping, you can't really argue with what's happening.
There are four narrators to this story: Tennyson and Bronte, then Bruiser and his little brother, Cody. The last two are the narrators that really stick out stylistically, for Cody narrates perfectly in the voice of an eight year old who is simultaneously wise beyond his years and painfully naive. He's never had a real injury, which gives him even more bravado than the average eight year old, but he's also been witness to and subjected to horrific abuse at the hands of his uncle. And Bruiser narrates in amazing poetry - starting with a perfect adaptation of "Howl" before moving into free verse.
This is a dramatic story with some very serious questions at its core about pain, joy, family, responsibility and friendship. The magical touch of Bruiser's ability gives Shusterman a unique way to comment on life, without having to go too far into the realm of fantasy. It is a perfect blend of the fantastic and the all-too real.