Multiple people, including author Carrie Mac, Danielle at Bookish Notions and Michelle from Mabel’s Fables told me that this would be a book I would love. They were correct. This National Book Award nominated title falls under one of my favourite categories, Poignant Coming of Age Story, and is particularly adept at detailing not only the toll that grief can take on a tween, but how friendships can change and nobody knows how to hurt you more than your best friend.
A pastiche of memories, jellyfish facts, and current action, The Thing About About Jellyfish chronicles the life cycle of a friendship cut short by an accidental drowning. The death of a friend is always tragic. But what happens when that friendship died months before the accident? Suzy and Franny became fast friends the minute they met in the swimming pool when they were five. As the girls around them start to change, becoming obsessed with boys and clothing and turning into the meanest versions of themselves, Franny makes Suzy promise to send her a big message if she ever turns into those girls.
So what happens when your ex-best friend, current enemy, dies? Suzy does not know how to mourn Franny. It has been ages since they were anything even resembling friends, but the last memory she has of Franny is a sad one; Franny in tears as a result of the “big message” Suzy sent to her. Suzy is guilty, confused, and does not know what to do with herself. So she stops talking and becomes obsessed with jellyfish, concocting a theory that Franny was killed by a jellyfish sting and then setting out to prove it.
Through flashback, we see how Franny changes and the devastating effect it has on Suzy. The death of a child is always tragic, but this book is more about the death of a friendship rather than a person. The moments of greatest sadness and empathy for me were ones where Franny or Suzy were intentionally hurting each other. Lots of books talk about bullying but rare is the middle grade novel that goes into such excruciating detail about the cruelties soon to be former friends inflict on each other. There is no sting like the sting of betrayal, and Franny and Suzy are engaged in a cold war anyone who has been a twelve year old girl will recognize. Exclusionary tactics, whispering, cruel names, cold shoulders, public humiliation and the airing of private information are all weapons in the arsenal of warring tweens.
Suzy is an odd duck and she knows it. She feels behind her peers in terms of the traditional bench markers of adolescence yet feels superior in intelligence. She is lonely but can’t trust the friendly advances of misunderstood lab partner, Justin, a classic middle grade crush. Her interest in science reminded me a tad of Ellie from Jennifer Holm’s wonderful The Fourteen Goldfish. Very different narratives, but similar protagonists. I like these thoughtful, science-minded and goal-oriented heroines. Let this be something we see more of in middle grade fiction.
At times the piece-y format of the narrative felt a bit clunky and broke up the flow of the story, but overall I loved Ali Benjamin‘s insight into the mind of a growing, grieving tween. Suzy is a victim but she inflicts some pretty brutal blows of her own, which is a reality that is often ignored or omitted in fiction. Here is a complicated, crunchy and authentic character. I like how Benjamin makes strong choices in Suzy’s actions. Readers will want to wrap her into a hug at one moment, and then shake her at another. When Suzy is weird she is WEIRD, but she is also lovable and totally unforgettable.
The Thing About Jellyfish is available now in hardcover from Little, Brown and Company.