The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin is at top of many lists as a contender for the next Newbery award. That’s understandable. It is, at times, a very good book. But there is something about the tale that seems a bit off to me. It’s as if it’s the author tried to write two stories in one. Warning: Spoilers ahead!
The book alternates between the present time and the past. Almost from the get-go we know that Suzy’s former best friend Franny has drowned over the summer vacation. And Suzy’s grief seems to have made her selectively mute.
Suzy and Franny were friends since preschool days and guppy swimming lessons. Both were outsiders and often got teased. So they stuck together and vowed never to be like the popular mean kids. But then Franny starts to change (puberty! boys!). Suzy, meanwhile, basically stays the same. Note that this a common plot development in tween lit. One nerdy girl becomes one of the cool kids and her dear old friend doesn’t.
Make no mistake, Suzy is a nerd. But she’s also has other problems that aren’t fully developed. Her mom calls her a constant-talker. Once she grabs hold of a subject, she’ll research the bejebus out of it and tell you all there is to know. She holds on to facts like a Queen Elizabeth holds on to her purse. And she often doesn’t know when to stop talking. Some people might say that places her on the autism spectrum. But her parents seem clueless to this and the author doesn’t delve deeper. Why has no adult picked up on this? I think the author wants Suzy to be a sympathetic character, but she instead comes across as immature and selfish. Also, if Suzy were a boy, would he have gotten a diagnosis?
(NB: When I lead book analysis discussions with other librarians, I like to ask them to imagine the book with a protagonist of the opposite gender and consider how the book would have been different. It’s interesting to note what actions and emotions we associate with boys and with girls.)
After Franny completely goes over to the dark side, even laughs when a cute boy deliberately throws a frog against a tree to impress her (who does that??), and bullies Suzy with the rest of them (perhaps even spitting on her), Suzy realizes that she has to send Franny a message. Years ago, they agreed that if either of them acted as badly as the popular girls, the other would send a message loud and clear as a warning. Suzy’s solution is to slip frozen disks of her own urine into Franny’s locker. Surely that’s a clear message.
Um, can you say “sociopath”? (Now imagine a boy doing that. Would our reactions to the book be the same?)
No one discovers who placed the urine into Franny’s locker and Suzy is disappointed. She feels that she must have done something wrong because Franny didn’t understand the message. Later… later… Suzy realizes what she did was hurtful because Franny was crying.
Franny dies the summer following the incident. So Suzy doesn’t get to explain why she did it. Suzy is overcome with guilt. Or maybe grief? The publisher’s blurbs and other book descriptions would have us believe the book is a story about Suzy getting over her friend’s death, but even Suzy realizes that’s not all there is to it. She is grieving – and angry other people are crying at Franny’s funeral when she should be the one crying. But she’s also feeling guilty.
I think Suzy doesn’t have the maturity (yet) to cope with what she did and this book shows her, in some way, gaining a bit of maturity. She is definitely overcome with guilt because she didn’t get to talk to Franny after the incident. Her guilt and her grief are tied together in a confusing manner for her. Suzy also has really big social problems. And I wish this was addressed further. The semi-happy ending felt too tidy because of this.
It sounds like I don’t like this book. That’s not exactly true. It just has some oddities that rub me the wrong way. The plotting is very good. I had thought that the ending would come with Suzy’s report on jellyfish (she believes that perhaps Franny was stung by a jellyfish and therefore the worst thing that happened before her death was not what Suzy did, but the jellyfish sting). Instead, though, the story goes on with a neat little twist that has Suzy trying to run away.
This book will give you a lot to talk about. But for me, anyway, it’s not a clear-cut Newbery winner.