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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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The Thing About Jellyfish

The Thing About Jellyfish - Ali Benjamin

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary. This somewhat predictable middle-grade novel is a good effort, and dutifully hits all the correct notes, but in the end takes itself too seriously.


Quick synopsis. Suzy is a bright girl who has experienced trauma: the loss of her best friend, Franny, to drowning. At a certain moment in her grief process, Suzy stopped speaking (unless she had to answer a direct question, in which case she spoke--which is sort of a relief relative to other novels that feature selective mutism). In a pivotal conversation, Suzy's mom tells her that there's no explanation for Franny's death, things like this sometimes "just happen." Suzy can't understand this, knowing what a good swimmer Franny was, and believes there must be a real cause. On a field trip to the aquarium, Suzy learns about a tiny, nearly invisible type of jellyfish with a deadly sting, and sets out to prove that this could have been the cause of Franny's death. Flashback chapters told in the present tense show that the girls' friendship was strained to the point of breaking, and Suzy is grappling with the loss of a friend on two levels, and the guilt that accompanies her last cruel act toward Franny. Meanwhile, Suzy slowly grows to trust a teacher who knows how to be there without being invasive, and a boy with ADHD who likes her for her. 


What's good. First, the prose in this novel is good. Second, the way Suzy's relationship with Franny unfolds in alternating present-tense chapters is excellent. The present-tense subtly ties in with Suzy's quantum-physics notion that time is relative and all moments are happening and have happened and will happen at the same time. Third, the fact that Suzy's older brother is gay and is seamlessly incorporated as a normal thing in life--brava. Fourth, although the "not talking" thing was initially annoying (this has become almost a trope in kidlit, and I wonder how common it actually is in real life), it does cleverly allow Suzy to live exclusively in her mind, where she cultivates important misunderstandings. And eventually, it's a relief when she acknowledges that you can't really learn if you're silent. Finally, the early childhood friendship between Franny and Suzy felt authentic to me--the way young children enter smoothly and quickly into deep friendships, and approach them with no biases.


What didn't work as well. The novel is divided into sections that follow the scientific method, as taught by Mrs. Turtin, a teacher Suzy admires. For some reason, rather than give the novel an organic structure, it winds up making it feel "constructed." Each time a section was tied to the scientific method (e.g. "develop a hypothesis"), it became a moment when I saw the author rather than the story.


Ms. Benjamin dutifully hits the right notes. But somehow those notes often felt forced. For instance, in the end Suzy's mother retrieves her from the airport after her failed attempt to travel to Australia. (Suzy was trying to meet a jellyfish specialist by traveling overseas.) But somehow her mother and her brother and her brother's boyfriend end up at the airport to pick her up. It makes for a lovely ending, where she is surrounded by this quirky family that adores her and wants to support her, but if you ask yourself, "How did they all get there?" it falls apart. Obviously the airline would call Suzy's mom--but would Suzy's mom then call her grown son, who lives in his own apartment? Because, what, she couldn't handle picking Zu up alone? It feels constructed by putting them all in one place to wrap the story up. (See also: "An awkward, happy ending" below.)


Autism spectrum disorder. I see only one other reader on Goodreads who mentions this phrase in relation to the book, and I'm interested that more readers haven't picked up on it. Suzy seems to be on the autistic scale to me, though she's high-functioning and extremely verbal: she imagines telling Franny with her eyes that the pee in the locker is the "big message," that Franny asked her to do this, that Franny hurt her feelings; in return, she fully expects that Franny's eyes will apologize. Suzy talks about the sterile properties of pee at lunch without initially seeing it's inappropriate. She's not just socially awkward, she has a profound lack of social understanding. She's often overly focused, counts and calculates obsessively, and has restrictive interests (though they're all academic). I admire the fact that the book itself doesn't label Suzy--she is simply being her authentic self. But I'm quite perplexed that readers didn't factor it into their understanding of her character. 


An awkward, happy ending. In the end a girl named Sarah, whom Suzy begrudgingly admired and was curious about all year, will clearly become her new best friend. This plot development fell right on the margin of feeling hopeful but also pat to me. For one thing, Suzy was only ever cold to Sarah (for instance, glaring at her when Mrs. Turtin asks her to join them in watching the science video), so it's hard to understand why Sarah would seek Suzy's friendship, particularly when the popular girls want to take Sarah under their wing. For another, there's a fine line between saying "there are other friendships after loss" (which I think Justin represents) and "another best friend will take away your sorrow." The trouble with Sarah is that we don't know her as well as we know Justin, so it's hard to avoid that second, more superficial message. And furthermore, why does Justin take an interest in Suzy? This is one of the problems with totally silent protagonists: in the real world, all children would ignore silent Suzy, even the misunderstood boy. (And what was the point in his nicknaming her Belle? I understand its thematic significance--he sees her inner beauty--but what boy actually decides to call a girl by the wrong name, consistently, even to her mother over the phone the first time he calls? It's also not believable that he chooses to do this to tie in with the "bell" of a jellyfish and counteract the other children's taunts of "Medusa." Calling her by her given name would counteract those taunts well enough.)


Inconsistency in Suzy's age and smarts. Sometimes Suzy was precocious, and sometimes she was dense. I don't object to that in principle, since children mature at different rates in different areas of their lives, but I do object when it seems that the uncharacteristic denseness is the author's way of manipulating the plot. For instance, Suzy is a child who can explain the concept of a rip-tide on the spot for us, but has never thought of it as a possible cause of Franny's drowning. She can research any subject on the planet, but doesn't look into whether underage international travel is allowed, or know what a travel visa is. At twelve, she doesn't know which numbers on a Visa are necessary for purchasing something online?


The premise is a bit artificial. Suzy won't accept "sometimes things just happen" as an explanation, and decides she'll find out the real cause of Franny's death. But this is an artificial tweaking of the difference between cause and reason on the author's part, to get the plot moving. By definition jellyfish stings (Suzy's own, prime thesis) "just happen"--so how will proving that Franny died of a jellyfish sting help her? Obviously this realization is her journey, and she summarizes it nicely at the end--there isn't a reason for Franny's death, no matter the cause--but it verges on babyish that she didn't understand all along that her mother meant exactly that.


Who will want to read this? At the end of the book, this was the question I was unsure about. It's quite appealing to adults who love middle-grade literature, and was perhaps a swing at a home-run: a Newbery award. But there are no small injections of humor in the novel to give it levity and nuances of joy for children. It takes itself quite seriously. How many readers have had their best friends die, and will feel a strong empathy for the protagonist? Only very cerebral, voracious middle-grade readers will be happy to consume this book. And then I wager they'll forget it fairly quickly.