The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
Little, Brown & Co., 2015
Advanced Reader’s Copy thanks to Publisher & NetGalley in exchange for a fair/honest review.
After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy was a rare jellyfish sting. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory–even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy’s achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe…and the potential for love and hope right next door. –Publisher’s Comments
I need you to know that I do not get excited about reading what I call issue-driven books. One, they tend to be Contemporary Fic of the 1st person variety, where I preference Fantasy in the 3rd. Two, so many feels! Three, you really risk the message-y-ness. When artfully done, it compels empathy, rather than outright demands it. If you can relate to any of the three anxieties, you will do more than fine with The Thing About Jellyfish. Make it one of your bi-annual issue-driven reads.
My skepticism for the early praise that would rank The Thing About Jellyfish with the absolute must-read issue-driven novels: Wonder (RJ Palacio) and Out of My Mind (Sharon Draper) faded with the first ‘chapter’ of the book “Ghost Heart.” As I read, my thoughts moved to Kate DiCamillo’s work; which is just as challenging for a debut children’s writer to confront. Because of Winn Dixie was on my mind even before Benjamin’s protagonist referenced it. These are names whose company sells a book, but I want to impart some sense of the experience of the reading. The thing is: I’m not sure I can relay just what kind of elegance or lovely progression you can expect of Ali Benjamin in The Thing About Jellyfish.
You’ve read the Jacket Copy I provided at the start. The thing is is that Suzy and Franny are no longer best friends during the fatal occurrence. And one of the most compelling arcs in the novel is the revelation as to how the best of friendships disintegrated into such wrenching, guilt-ridden grief.
Where Suzy has decided to no longer speak within the world around her, she speaks to Franny in alternating sections of the novel. Suzy recounts their history, expresses a lack of understanding, and tries to explain why and how they came to be where they would ultimately conclude. The italicized sections inform every part of the novel and, most importantly, the main character. It is so well done, so increasingly painful. And damn if it isn’t familiar: the attempts to reconcile the changes between the one you fell in love with and the person they now want to be. The risks and results to the relationship feels like betrayal; and just who is the traitor? what if no one is? what if things just happen. As Suzy’s elder brother and his boyfriend often say: Middle School does suck; it is hard; friendship is hard.
It’s the prose writing that reminds me of DiCamillo, and the subjects of grief, brokenness and of separation, which DiCamillo is so adept at conveying. It is also in the way DiCamillo describes children who are different without being medically conditioned. Suzy is a Science Nerd; she is a constant-talker; she has frizzy out-of-control hair; she is curious; and because the story hangs on it: she requires explanations. [yeah, she doesn’t sound that “different” does she?]
Suzy’s mother’s explanation for Franny’s death, despite Franny being an excellent swimmer, is left wanting and Suzy’s imagination focuses upon the Jellyfish.
The things we learn about Jellyfish and the way Benjamin incorporates it into the story is the most marvelous thing. How Suzy’s relationship to Jellyfish shifts situation (e.g. enemy, simile, etc.) is subtle and terribly important. Relationships are dynamic; they require love, and seek understanding. Suzy and that scientific and poetic mind is seeking and learning. She is stubborn, but she is also hurting. She is real enough and accessible enough to be flawed and forgiven for it.
Benjamin draws such a fully realized character that we are reminded, beyond the 1st person narrative, that the novel is from Suzy’s perspective. She requires patience and curiosity in order come to understand where she is coming from, in order to try (as reader’s do) to anticipate where she is going, where she will end up. You become invested in her own project, to learn what happened not only to the relationship with Franny, but to Franny (and Suzy) herself.
There are other relationships being built, being tested within the novel. Their beauty is not that they merely add charm, but they contribute to the overall coherence. For instance, there are echoes of Franny/Dylan in Suzy/Justin; which isn’t to suggest romance, but how relationships can change. In time, Suzy may be able to sympathize with Franny. Another question to confront is the one Sarah poses: that of mistaking the depths of relationship based on appearances, of which cues to read. Confrontation and communication is important.
With Suzy no longer speaking, she is keenly aware of how much language is physical, how much sound is still created. How perfect to situate this conversation in a time where we become so acutely aware of our and others’ physical presences. Add makeup and costuming (as Benjamin does).
Relationships are dynamic creatures, but then, so are we. We change. We diversify and then clump back together, maybe in different configurations. Each iteration of ourself is an impression, leaves an impression. And you can see where Suzy is especially pained in her preoccupation with Franny never becoming any older than 12. The problem for Suzy is that Franny will never inhabit another impression than the last one she’d left her with. Of course, not unlike the immortality jellyfish, Suzy gives us stories of her and Franny from before that last scene. And indeed, her recollections give us more, it reinterprets things. Most importantly, there is room to redeem it, via time and experience. The problem is the impulse that is the preservation of self, and other, and the learning to let go.
The difficult thing about the novel is that it is a journey through a time of grieving. It is hard to anticipate the conclusion. The only reassurance is that there is one. And it will be a beginning. For all the lovely cleanliness of the structure and pacing and writing, grieving is a messy, fraught, business. There will be ugly-crying and screaming and hatred, but even that is quite beautiful in Ali Benjamin’s hands. While the poetic language lends rationality to the scientific, it allows the emotional content absolute reason. Benjamin successfully ratchets up the intensity, explaining Suzy even as Suzy, in turn, has no explanation for Franny. Things just happen. The coming down from that is tenuous. The scientific lends the poet a way to frame the world, to fit words to an observation, a conclusion.
The Thing About Jellyfish is structured in 7 Parts with numberless, but titled Sections within each. Each Part begins with a quote from Mrs. Turton the 7th Grade Life Science Teacher and all around bad-ass. Each quote is an explanation for different aspects of conducting a Research Project (the final part being the “Conclusion”). Each Section essentially reads like a short story. These pieces are primarily reliant upon juxtaposition (as a Literary work might) rather than the old dependable segue. All the transitions are effortless. Even the switching between two linear time-lines is done with ease.
I ramble into thoughts, but the thing about The Thing About Jellyfish is how accessible it is. The structure buoys its subjects. The brevity of the Sections and Parts ease the weight of the content. Any educational component is rendered relevant, not just geek-worthy. Where the drama (and trauma) of Middle School is a bit daunting—especially when the author exaggerates the fracturing of childhood with puberty by adding death and divorce—the science is exciting (zombie ants?!). The writing is enchanting, if not completely effortless. And the kind of courage witnessed in so many characters in the novel is inspiring. What Middle Schooler (what human) couldn’t use some sympathy and inspiration to keep moving.
“Whatever was about to happen next in that dream […] it was better than staying still. The staying still was the worst part. The waiting and not-knowing and being afraid: That was worse than anything else that might happen” (220).
Another terrible thing that might happen is missing out on The Thing About Jellyfish.
Of note: I do love the effortless realism of Aaron and Rocco. Aaron is Suzy’s brother; Rocco is his beloved. I adore the discovery of the photograph on the mantel. I love that the parents are present, however clumsy, but earnest. I love the contemplations on the universe and the stars. I am grateful for the blip that was blood that read menstruation and how perfect its timing.
The “Author’s Note” includes more information on events, videos, figures, etc. referenced in the novel. This book would be so great to teach. Or Book Club.