Wednesday, May 8, 2013
by Kimberly McCreight
383 pages Fiction YA
I have to admit it--I peeked ahead to the end of the book. The suspense was killing me. I promised myself that I wouldn't do that with a book I was blogging, but there I was peeking. The remarkable thing was the peeking didn't spoil the book for me. It remained a good read.
Amelia is a precocious 15-year-old, the daughter of Kate, a single mother who is a high priced, overworked lawyer in New York. The two live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Amelia attends a tony prep school, Grace Hall. Amelia dies in the first chapter of Reconstructing Amelia, and the rest of the book is spent "reconstructing" the events leading up her death. As her fog of grief departs, Kate decides that the reports that Amelia's death was a suicide can't possibly be right, and she sets out to discover the facts.
The story is told in the alternative narratives of Amelia and Kate, although Amelia comes across a more appealing character. Tweeting, texting, emails, and Facebook all play a huge role in the plot development as well as in the design of the book. The story line is heartbreaking from beginning to end--from Amelia's death in the beginning scenes to the visit of Kate to Amelia's grave in the final scene.
I find it interesting that the school, Grace Hall, is portrayed as the school from Hell. Certainly it is hellish from the prospective of the students. The teachers are enemies, the dean of students is evil, and the principal is a bit of a dolt who operates at the whim of the school board. Even the teacher Amelia loves turns out to have some fatal flaws. The Kirkus reviewer suggested that the depiction of the school was a bit "over the top," and I think that I would have to agree with that.
McCreight truly is able to capture the angst of being a high school student. The harmful forces that influence decision making among teenagers play a role in the plot--bullying, sex, alcohol, drugs. And she uses social media in all the ways teenagers use it--both positive and negative. Amelia is typical in that she struggles to find her place in the vast hierarchy of the schools popularity rankings, so when she is invited to join an elite and secret sorority, she is both flattered and flabbergasted. She doesn't tell her best friend, Sylvia, that she has been picked to be part of the Maggies, and she is consumed with guilt that she doesn't clue her friend in.
When Amelia finds herself in over her head, it is the adults who fail her most. She tries to tell her mother what is happening to her several times, but Kate is always too busy. Sylvia is self-absorbed like most teenagers, and her text-buddy Ben is far away in Albany. The school counselor and the principal try to help, but it is too little too late.
And then there is the whole issue of popularity. The reviewer in the New York Journal of Books says, "The mix of desire and disdain for popularity and acceptance many women face and the way it shapes them as human beings and informs their actions is the heart of Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia." This is at play both with Amelia and with Kate. Kate works extra hard for acceptance at work, and Amelia is in the midst of her own crisis of acceptance.
I had two questions as I was reading the book: What did I not know about my children's teenage years? and Is this a YA book or an adult book?
I don't think that I want to ask the question of my adult children, "What did you do that I didn't know about?" At this point, with them all responsible adults, I am not at all sure I want to know. I was always comforted to know that the concept of consequence is the last thing to develop in the human brain, and that for some young adults, it doesn't develop until the early 20s. My children survived; Kate's daughter did not.
On the issue of the YA audience, I think this fits very well with the older teenager who is past some of the more hideous parts of being a teenager and can look at Amelia's crisis with more adult eyes. More appropriately, I think it fits very well as a cautionary tale for parents of teenagers who may think that their kids are way too smart to engage in risky behavior. Last year I read Defending Jacob by William Landay, and I was left with the same feelings of devastation.
The close of the review in the Entertainment Weekly website says it just right: "Every single twist in Reconstructing Amelia is clever, and rightfully earned. As that righteous babe Virginia Woolf once said, ''Fiction is like a spider's web.'' McCreight is a masterful weaver."
Reconstructing Amelia appears on the New York Times bestseller list. One last thing: I don't know when a cover has more appropriately conveyed the atmosphere of a book. It is perfect.
The review in Entertainment Weekly: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20685797,00.html
The review in New York Journal of Books: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/review/reconstructing-amelia
The review in Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/kimberly-mccreight/reconstructing-amelia/?gclid=COywifaghbcCFUNqMgodPCcA1Q
Kimberly McCreight's website: http://www.kimberlymccreight.com/