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The Thing about Jellyfish Paperback – 22 Sep 2016
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A painful story smartly told, Benjamin's first solo novel has appeal well beyond a middle-school audience (Kirkus Reviews Starred Review)
A moving portrayal of loss and healing (Publishers Weekly Starred Review)
Benjamin explores the heartbreaking subject of grief in the young with dreamy, meditative and elegiac prose (The New York Times)
This is a heartbreakingly touching debut about friendship, loss, fear and love that is funny, clever and beautifully written (Daily Mail)
[an] intense and nuanced tale of friendship, revenge and youthful resourcefulness (Guardian)
One of the most beautifully written debuts I've read in a really long time (Sophie So Many Books, So Little Time)
An extraordinary debut about a twelve-year-old girl coming to terms with her best friend's death in the only way she knows how.See all Product description
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At the outset I alternated among: appreciating the tone and style of the writing and the beautiful phrasing and pace, checking to see how many more pages I had left, and wanting to slap Suzy in the head with a cold wet fish.
Reviews and blurbs emphasize the elegiac passages, the jellyfish angle/conceit, and Suzy's marvelous search for personal and universal meaning as she navigates her own inner space. O.K. as far as that goes. Suzy is also cruel, irresponsible and a major narcissistic drama queen. This all makes the book interesting, maddening, annoying and compelling.
I guess my point is that this isn't an emotionally satisfying trip down memory lane with Scout in "To Kill A Mockingbird". This is a roller coaster ride through the mixed up and complicated head of a conflicted and sometimes childish and dense twelve year old girl. It isn't all gauzy and upbeat and for all of its mild and mellow passages it is challenging and in many ways confrontational. So, if there was ever a read-it-yourself-and-see-what-you-think, this is it.
Please note that I picked up a free copy of the ARC of this book at the 2015 ALA Convention. Apart from that I have no connection at all to either the author or the publisher of this book.
Suzy just can’t accept that Franny died whilst swimming on a family holiday, because she was always such a great swimmer. She chooses not to speak unless absolutely necessary as she goes on a mission to show everyone that Franny’s tragic death wasn’t as straight forward as it seemed. It just seems so unfair for a good swimmer to drown, so Suzy is determined to prove that a sea creature caused her death instead.
What I loved about this book is that, despite the lack of conversation in this novel due to Suzy’s selective speaking, Suzy is one of the most chatty, funny and charming characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about. She narrates this story and fills it with fascinating facts that manage to enhance the story rather than distract from it, and I completely adored it.
Ali Benjamin’s writing style is perfect, and I would recommend The Thing About Jellyfish to everyone, particularly parents and teachers.
And that means that there was a time when you were gone and no one on Earth had any idea. Just you, all alone, disappearing into the water and no one even wondering yet.
And that is an incredibly lonely thing to think about.”
Suzy – ‘Zu’ to her mom – is weird, the kind of weird she never had to think about until sixth grade. Even though her parents chastised her for talking too much, for excitedly sharing facts and trivia about the world rather than listening to others, her best friend Franny always got her. They swore they’d tell each other if they ever became the kind of girls obsessed with boys and popularity and cosmetics. They’d have a sign.
But when it happens – when Franny becomes one of the cool girls who shuns Suzy for her oddness – the message hasn’t been agreed on. And when, that summer, Franny drowns in a freak accident, Suzy can’t forgive herself for what’s happened, or shake the feeling that if she’d only known the last time they saw each other was the last time, things would look very different.
Suzy’s seventh-grade science teacher assigns them a report, and those instructions shape the structure for the novel – the book is divided up into ‘hypothesis’, ‘variables’, ‘procedure’ and so on. After a trip to the New England Aquarium and an exhibit of eerie creatures that seem like ‘ghost hearts’, her research leads her to jellyfish – and a particular deadly kind that she’s convinced caused Franny’s death. She may be barely talking to her parents, her therapist, or anyone in school, but her mind is whirring: which experts can she talk to? Who might help her uncover the truth about what happened?
Ali Benjamin’s background as a science writer is evident throughout the scientific facts dotted throughout the book – covering not just jellyfish but stars, the universe, and the sterility of urine and sweat – but Suzy’s enthusiasm and curiosity invite the reader to gobble up the trivia too. The driving force behind Suzy’s quest is, we discover, ultimately guilt: she wants to find a ‘villain’ in the story, someone worse than her. A particularly poisonous type of jellyfish seems like an ideal target for a twelve-year-old girl trying to make sense of a world in which bad things can ‘just happen’.
Alongside the progression of her research, we see the flashbacks of her friendship with Franny, from its beginning until its ugly dissolution. Middle school, as Suzy’s elder brother constantly reminds her, is hell, and the particular cruelties of this age group are captured in Benjamin’s straightforward but elegant prose. It’s a time when childhood friendships can all too easily crack under the forces of changing interests and peer pressure – the desire to be cool, to fit in, to be like the other girls – and unlike many other explorations of this topic (I was reminded of Frances O’Roark Dowell’s The Secret Language of Girls and Mariah Fredericks’s The True Meaning of Cleavage), there’s no hope for reconciliation at the end of this.
The ideal reading range is ages ten to fourteen, with the usual caveat that a good book is a good book is a good book. Adults who adored RJ Palacio’s Wonder or Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me will love this, too.
(originally published at[...])
Also, I recommend getting the hardback and removing the dust jacket - the yellow cover with the sparkly jellyfish is stunning.
Suitable for ages 9+.
Thank you to Harper Collins for sending me a copy to review.
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