The Host, the first adult novel from Stephenie Meyer, is as cheesy as you'd expect from this trailer, which aired during Good Morning America. (Not to mention Meyer's track record as author of the young-adult vampire series Twilight, soon to be a movie.) But The Host is a better class of beach read, thanks to its narrator, an alien who participates in a successful occupation of a conquered Earth. A bizarre love triangle lets Meyer ask questions about human consciousness, and whether the colonizers assimilate the colonized, or vice versa. Spoilers ahead.
I'm a huge sucker for novels that take place after an alien invasion of Earth has already succeeded. (Actually, the only other novel along those lines I can think of is the criminally neglected When Heaven Fell by William Barton.) In Meyer's novel, a race of parasites/symbionts has succeeded in taking over almost every human on Earth. (They're sort of like the Trill from Star Trek, or the parasites from the recent Nicole Kidman vehicle Invasion. Just like the Body Snatchers, The Host's "souls" took over via subterfuge, until they were unstoppable.
And in line with some other mind-controlling parasite stories, the "souls" are much more peaceful than humans. They abhor violence and are incapable of lying. After the souls take over, murder and rape become unknown and child molesters line up to turn themselves in. (In a hilarious sequence towards the end of the book, we learn the souls' television programs are completely dull, and even The Brady Bunch turned out to be too violent for them to watch.)
What makes the "souls" (and yes, the names are among the cheese-markers in Meyer's novel) so interesting is that they don't always take over their host bodies completely. Older hosts, who are aware of the alien invaders, can resist even after the parasites are implanted. The novel's main character, Wanderer, gets implanted into the body of one of the few human resistance fighters, Melanie. And then Wanderer and Melanie have to struggle for control over Melanie's body, before becoming uneasy friends.
And even when the "souls" manage to eradicate all trace of the consciousness of their bodies' original owners, they still cling to old habits. The newly "ensouled" bodies live in the same houses as before, stay married to the same people (also occupied by "souls") and often keep the same jobs. It's like that Roald Dahl story about the birds that switch places with the people, living in the people's houses and carrying on their routines while the people watch, helpless, from the trees.
One of my problems with The Host was the fact that it made the transition from "struggling for control" to "uneasy friends" way, way too quickly. Wanderer soon becomes obsessed with Melanie's boyfriend and kid brother, both of whom are still parasite-free and hiding out in some caves with a group of resisters. Wanderer relives Melanie's memories and falls in love with Jared, the man Melanie loves. Instead of accessing Melanie's mind to help the "souls" track down the human resisters, Wanderer starts identifying with them.
As I said, Meyer rushes over Wanderer's change of heart, because Meyer is much, much more interested in what happens when Wanderer/Melanie manages to join the human resistance fighters. (Where Wanderer is in constant danger of being killed, and does get roughed up pretty horribly a few times.)
Will Jared, the man both Wanderer and Melanie love, ever accept the parasite in the body of his girlfriend? Is it really Melanie's body, and not either of her warring consciousnesses, that really responds to Jared, because of pheromones and chemical attractions? When Jared finally does show affection to Melanie's body, will Melanie be able to get over her jealousy of Wanderer receiving some of that attention?
Yes, as the book-jacket copy puts it, this is the first ever love triangle involving only two bodies. And weirdly, a trashy romance turns out to be the perfect vehicle for exploring issues of bodies and identity. Do we exist beyond our physical selves? Are our desires just our bodies? How can Wanderer convince the suspicious humans that she still has Melanie's consciousness alive within her? Is it fair for Wanderer to have sex using Melanie's body, while Melanie watches powerlessly? (Melanie only rarely manages to control her own body after Wanderer takes over.)
The book's silly romance subpot winds up politicizing Wanderer, turning her into a race traitor who helps the humans to rescue others from the parasites' mental occupation. We're told, over and over, that what makes humans special is that we have such strong emotions, as compared with the mostly bland-sounding dolphins, bats and cacti that the parasites have occupied before. It's hinted that raw emotion may eventually save the human race from being erased forever (maybe in the inevitable sequel.)
Without giving away The Host's ending, I will mention that it's a bit disappointing. A threat that's been looming since the start of the book gets resolved way too easily, so that Meyer can get back to the romance that actually interests her. And then Wanderer faces a dilemma whose solution is obvious, but which nobody discovers for a few dozen pages. But even if raw plot isn't exactly Meyer's strong suit, the novel's soapy storyline will have you arguing with your friends about the mind/body dichotomy and colonial occupations for days.