This is a review of an ARC of Ali Benjamin’s middle grade novel, The Thing About Jellyfish.
I read it right after Looking For Alaska and promptly named January the month of books about kids who die too young. I became excited about this book only a few pages in. Benjamin’s writing is beautiful—and if you’ve been with me for any amount of time, you’ll know that I love poetic writing with clever descriptions and new ways of using old words. One of the things that excited me most was the relationship between the narrator’s older brother and his boyfriend. Yes, boyfriend. And no one was uncomfortable with the relationship, no one was upset by it, it was a non-issue—just a beautiful, loving partnership between two consenting adults. I thought at first that I was even reading a book with an African American narrator where her race was a nonissue and that made me doubly if not triply excited; I later determined from little things like sunburns that I was not and tried to contain my disappoint and enjoy Suzy as a white, middle-class American.
The jellyfish is both metaphorical and a real feature of the plot and of the text. Benjamin has done some serious research for this novel, and the text is seeded with many facts and thoughts about jellyfish–fascinating and sometimes horrifying. For the narrator Suzy, jellyfish become a constant worry, a constant threat, even though she does not seem to live at the seashore. Twenty-three people are stung by jellyfish every five seconds, Suzy finds out, and she spends several pages counting the number of stings, the number quickly growing.
Told in both the present and in italicized flashback, the almost yearlong story investigates the friendship between Suzy and Franny as Suzy processes the reality of Franny’s death, investigates the possibility that jellyfish were the external cause of Franny’s premature death, grieves her friend, and moves forward in her life. As Suzy moves nearer a resolution, the flashbacks move nearer a shattering, so the text seems like Suzy constantly unsettled. The interspersion of the past and present, though at times it is difficult to determine how far back Benjamin has taken us and where in the timeline a particular scene fits, works well to build a completed picture of Suzy’s and Franny’s relationship and does not feel like heavy-handed exposition. The book is divided into sections headed as a scientific report, echoing Suzy’s assignment, echoing Suzy’s private investigation, and offering a framework and lens through which to examine the various sections of the book. This in particular I think helped the story to maintain structure even with the fractured and disjointed timeline caused by interspersed flashbacks.
Suzy is presented as a seventh grader, but reads as younger. She fixates on science and on facts to the exclusion of the other interests and the interests in one another that her peers are developing. She has difficulty understanding or accepting the change that occurs in her friend Franny as Franny grows and grows apart from Suzy. She seems to have difficulty predicting others’ reactions to her actions—particularly in one instance involving Franny, which I won’t spoil. For these reasons as well as several instances of perseveration and Suzy’s impressive organization, I wonder if Suzy might be a child on the spectrum, though Benjamin never says so directly and it is never discussed.
I was impressed by the book more than I enjoyed it. It is difficult for me to enjoy an exploration of grief for a best friend and for a friendship fractured, but this book was uniquely structured and its facts were interesting. It explored marginalized voices without making an issue of the marginalization and fostered an environment of openness and acceptance and understanding. It explored death and grief and jellyfish and relationships and change. It did all of this in a succinct 339 pages.
If you enjoyed this story, I’m tempted to recommend, Betty Hicks’ The Worm Whisperer. Even though it’s been years since I read Hicks’, I feel like there are some palpable similarities between the two books in tone and in their surprising depth.
Benjamin, Ali. The Thing About Jellyfish. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2015.
This review is not endorsed by Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, or Ali Benjamin. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.