Friday, September 23, 2011

The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary E. Pearson


This is a really, really good book.  In addition to the YA standard issues of authority, expectations, independence, isolation, acceptance, and identity, Pearson weaves in an assortment of less standard questions of ethics, humanity, death, freedom, entitlement, and even idolatry.  There are the obligatory parent-child conflicts--though the circumstances and reasons for the conflicts are less conventional--and  the equally obligatory adolescent romance.  In many ways, the story could be an excellent introduction to science/speculative fiction for those young female readers who prefer standard coming-of-age fodder. 

Like most good science fiction, this book asks more questions than it answers.  The ending seems a bit tidy; it seemed like many of the questions Jenna struggled with throughout the book were tidily swept away in a hasty epilogue. But then, I'm not sure there was any other way to conclude the story, since the questions are inherently unanswerable--and with young adult fiction, an unresolved ending isn't likely. Ethical conundrums make great problems, but resolutions are hard to come by, unless you're willing to cheat a bit. 

And the climax of the story--though well executed--relies on a conflict that rings false.  Jenna, as written, seems unlikely to be so torn, so conflicted.  Her belated sense of self-preservation is an unconvincing basis for resisting the solution dictated by her own memories and experiences.

Still, it was a compelling read, and Pearson builds the suspense quite effectively, even if many reveals are heavily foreshadowed.   The story is filled with conflict, yet villains and heroes are nowhere to be found--it's just a bunch of people in a mess, making decisions the best they know how (which is, I think a much more effective narrative choice than mere good v. evil, at least in this context).  Some of those decisions are bad, but the people who make them . . . well, each person (with one small exception) is generally trying to do the right thing.  Even if the result turns out to be very, very wrong. 

I was particularly struck by Pearson's indictment of child idolatry, and its effect on the child.  In the closing interview, she notes that the inspiration for the story came from her own daughters' struggle with cancer, so she is not writing as some distant critic, but as a parent who faced the illness and potential death of the children she loves.  Yet notwithstanding her love for her children, Pearson seems quite critical of a parent's willingness to save a child, whatever the cost. Jenna's parents are written with sympathy and sensitivity, but Pearson questions the choices they made, and their almost fanatical love for their daughter.  Yet they are not villains.  And there are hints that their love for Jenna--and Jenna's perception of it--are not quite as unique as Jenna (and the reader) thought; perhaps the difference lies more in their ability to act on their love than in the love (or idolatry) itself. 

Ultimately, there is more here than can be expounded upon in a short(ish) review.  Suffice to say, the book is well-written--I found myself wanting very much to know what happened next, and now that I am done reading, I continue to wrestle with the issues raised.  The ability to create that kind of suspense and interest in a reader, even after the story is told, is a rare thing indeed.  Pearson deserves credit for producing a such thought-provoking read.

The audiobook is particularly well done, as Lamia invests the narrator with a youthful innocence that at times makes Jenna seems younger than her seventeen years.  And in many ways, she is.  The other characters each have their own distinct voice, without descending into caricature. However, I suspect that the paragraphing and typeface choices in the written version add a good deal to the story, so I will probably try to read the actual book at some point.

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