eisha: Hey, all. I talked the fabulous Adrienne of What Adrienne Thinks About That into co-reviewing The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson with me. Here’s the result. It’ll be cross-posted on both our blogs today (here’s the link to hers). We tried to avoid major spoilers, to keep it safe for anyone who hasn’t read it. We mostly succeeded. We also managed to work in references to a bunch of other similarly-themed YA books, so this is almost a reading list post. Yay! Enjoy.
adrienne: I go about almost nothing systematically, least of all my reading, which, for someone who considers herself a student of literature, is completely haphazard. My approach is to keep around large numbers of books I am interested in for one reason or another and then to wander from one book to another with no goal other than to consume as many as I possibly can while putting minimal effort into things like eating and cleaning my house. Over the last few months, though, I can’t help but notice that much of my reading has consisted of reading whatever Eisha’s been reading a couple weeks after she’s read it. I think there are two reasons for this: 1. Eisha is awesome, and 2. we both like the supernatural. (Speaking of which, Eisha, have you seen how the truth is going to be out there again this summer? So exciting–and OMG I love Scully’s new hair.) Anyway, this is how I read Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, and Daniel Waters’ Generation Dead. It’s also how I wound up reading The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson, a crafty bit of science fiction that hits the same territory as Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain and Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion in a way that won’t threaten people who are put off by the phrase “science fiction.” This sci fi deception begins with a splendiferous cover that screams “I’M COOL! I’M COOL!” in soothing blues and greens while staying completely true to the story and its themes.
Eisha, I’m going on. Want to hit us with a summary? Should we use Jules’ marquee tag to post a spoiler alert? Do you agree that Henry Holt and Co. should give jacket designer Meredith Pratt a raise and more covers to design? WHAT ABOUT SCULLY’S NEW HAIR????
eisha: You flatter me. But it’s true, we do have similar tastes in books (and apparently in defunct-TV-shows-making-a-big-screen-comeback, too – YAY!), so I totally love that you keep biting my reading list. Now we have SO MANY BOOKS TO TALK ABOUT. I’ll try to stick to Jenna Fox for now, though.
Speaking of, you asked for a summary. Well, imagine this: You wake up with no memories of who you are. You’re told by your parents that you’ve just awakened from a year-long coma after an accident. You don’t remember the accident. You don’t recognize the 17-year-old girl in the mirror. You have to watch old home movies to piece together your past. You have to relearn how to walk, how to feel, how to read emotions on other people’s faces. And as you do, you start to wonder about certain things: your grandmother doesn’t seem to like you anymore, you haven’t seen or heard from your friends since the accident, you don’t have any scars, and your family seems to be keeping a lot of secrets. That’s what life is like for Jenna Fox, and as she uncovers the mystery of her survival, her story delves into some fascinating territory, ranging from transgenic plants and animals to the overprescription of antibiotics, while ultimately exploring the nature of identity, the power of unconditional love, and what it means to be human.
Your comparison to House of the Scorpion is dead-on. I loved that book, and I loved this one in a similar way, and for similar reasons: a compelling plot, multi-dimensional characters, and the ability to convey very complex ideas in a way that stimulates thought, rather than preaches a moral. And you’re right, it’s sci-fi in that it’s set in the not-too-distant future and deals with some scientific stuff that isn’t quite reality yet; but the focus here isn’t on the science, but on the humans who create it, manipulate it, reap its benefits, and suffer its consequences.
The cover KICKS ASS. I would totally have it on my wall, it’s so pretty, and the butterfly is such an apt, multi-layered symbol for Jenna. I like Scully’s hair, too – it’s softer and more feminine, which seems in keeping with how her character would have progressed after the series ended. But here’s the thing about us short girls: sometimes our heads look big for our bodies. I’d never thought that about Gillian Anderson before I saw her new hair, but I think the longer length is resulting in decreased volume, and giving her a bit of a pea-head. Just me?
adrienne: Okay, so I watched the preview again, and I see what you’re saying. Maybe it’s the shine, like the way a room looks bigger when you paint it bright yellow or white.
And while I was on YouTube, I found a book trailer for Jenna Fox:
You mentioned the character of the grandmother, Lily, in your summary, and I have to talk about her. I am always so excited when I run across a grandparent who strikes me as REAL in youth lit–so many of the grandparents I come across are so blah. Not Lily, though. First off, she’s a powerful, smart woman who only recently gave up an extremely successful career in medicine for a contemplative life of gardening and preserving heirloom plants. Her aversion to Jenna is palpable and jarring and very ungrandparentish, even in the first few pages of the book. It’s the strongest early clue that the trouble Jenna senses is not all in her head. It’s interesting to me, though, that even though Lily has strong feelings that often lead her to ignore Jenna, she’s also the only one in the family who respects Jenna enough to be straight with her, and it’s that respect that ultimately leads Jenna back to life and the world.
Lily is also Jenna’s connection to spirituality and that whole what-it-means-to-be-human thing. Jenna’s visits to the San Luis Rey Mission are some of my favorite parts of the book. I love this passage particularly:
“Rows of candles flicker on either side of me in the smaller arms of the church. I step forward, my clumsy feet scuffling the floor, echoing across the stillness. Souls, if there is such a thing, are nourished and mended here. In case of error they can’t be uploaded like the whole Boston curriculum–there are no spares in case one is lost. Souls are given only once.”
So much of the book is in those lines, and if the average teen reader hasn’t yet come to feel that their soul might be irrevocably damaged or lost, they’re probably going to feel it at some time or another. Unfortunately.
eisha: Hey, I hadn’t actually seen that X-Files preview yet. She looks great there – maybe because she keeps swinging that hair around as she flinches in fear from whatever evil government agent/alien/freaky mutant person they’re running from. I was thinking more about this picture I saw recently. Which is still a huge improvement over this. (Not that I read Go Fug Yourself a lot. Certainly not on a daily basis or anything. ‘Cause I don’t. Okay, I do.)
I’m glad you brought up the soul issue. I loved the way the spirituality issue was approached, and the way it was intertwined with the other questions of identity and humanity. Those are great questions for anyone to think about, but I think it’s especially of interest in the teenage years, when we’re all trying to figure out who we are and what we believe. I love the way Pearson doesn’t feed you any answers, either. She just presents some ideas, maybe a couple of characters arguing points of view, and lets you stew over it.
The major freak-out for me here, though, was the scientific stuff. It was a real eye-opener. Obviously, this is a work of fiction, but Pearson did some serious research, and the potential ecological, medical, and legal disasters depicted in this future seemed wa-a-a-a-ay too possible. But occasionally, I did think some of the issues threatened to wander into didacticism, like the character Allys and her whole campaign for biomedical ethics. Given what her character went through, I suppose it was understandable how strongly she felt, but it almost got heavy-handed a couple of times. Did you get that?
adrienne: I have to agree with you about Allys, although every time I got annoyed, I started thinking that it’s also true that teenagers can get particularly high and mighty and inflexible when they decide to follow an issue. I think that Pearson saved it a bit, too, when Allys and her family had to rethink their position when faced with a Big Decision in the end. I usually find taglines kind of annoying, but the one on this book–”How far would you go to save someone you love?”–is apt. People will go really freaking far to save someone they love, and that’s why all this science Pearson gets into and that we as a society are mulling over right now (cloning, stem cell, genetic modification, immunizations, antibiotics) can be so dangerous. I mean, when my husband was sick, someone asked me if I felt badly about how many animals died and were mistreated in the research that developed the drugs that were extending Brian’s life, and on an intellectual level I can get into all the things that are wrong with animal research, but, still, I was like, “Are you KIDDING ME? I would gladly pluck the eyeballs out of a room full of PEOPLE to save this man.” When you start talking about the potential death of a child, as is the case in this book, parents do not care one whit if saving that child might eventually mean the deaths of other people. They aren’t even going to think about it. The answer will always be, “Yes, please, we’ll worry about everything else later.” THAT is what it means to be human. It reminds me of Pet Sematary by Stephen King, too. The whole slippery slope thing.
It’s interesting that Pearson is also bringing up issues about nanotechnology, artificial limbs, and other ways computers have and might infiltrate our lives. How much of THAT can we take and still be human? Who knows?
What impresses me is that Pearson packs all of this into 265 small pages with generous white space. I think she’s largely successful because even if you don’t know much about all these issues, it’s easy to cling to the fact that at its base, this is a story about a girl having having serious communication issues with her parents, which, you know, who DOESN’T at some point?
I hear you on this all seeming way too possible. A lot of people have been saying that this novel combined with the recent release of The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer (which I’m currently listening to on CD, the companion book to 2006′s Life as We Knew It) is making them nervous and feeling like they need to stock up on the old canned goods. I can tell you that between the two, I’m feeling extra-good about the heirloom vegetables I’m growing in the backyard. How about you, Eisha? Stockpiling water or anything?
And I totally read Go Fug Yourself every day. Doesn’t everyone?
eisha: Dude, for serious. I was already in apocalypse-prep mode since, a few weeks ago, I made the ridiculous mistake of watching I Am Legend, Cloverfield, and Children of Men over a 24-hour period. So, in addition to being worried about giant mutant monsters, zombie viruses, and the decline of society into abject chaos due to pandemic sterility, NOW I’m also deeply freaked about antibiotic-resistant epidemics, massive earthquakes, and corn becoming extinct. Water, schmater – I’m stockpiling microwave popcorn.
Very good points on the tagline, btw. I think that feeds into yet another theme Pearson manages to cover: unconditional love. Being able to recognize and appreciate the essence of someone, regardless of what physically surrounds that essence. Jenna’s parents had to learn to love her as an individual, rather than as their perfect little miracle baby; Lily had to get past her moral objections and recognize that Jenna was still her granddaughter; Ethan – well, you know, YAY. Even Allys had to come around in the end.
And there’s also hope: that things can change, can still get better, we can learn from our mistakes. We get a lovely little passage toward the end from Lily: “What did you say about change? Small steps? If the world changes, I suppose minds do, too. Sometimes it just takes time and perspective.” If we didn’t have those twin themes of love and hope running so deeply through this novel, all the horrific elements would be hard to take. Ooh, I just thought of another novel this would look really good on a shelf display next to this one: M.T. Anderson’s Feed. It’s also got a lot of the technology-gone-awry-oh-god-what-have-we-done? kind of futuristic elements, but at heart it’s really a love story too. You can’t really say it ends happily, though – not so much with the hope as this one. I think Pearson keeps a good balance, and leaves you on a positive-yet-not-sappy note.
Maybe we should do the same. Do you have any other thoughts you want to toss around?
adrienne: I’ve had a positive-yet-not-sappy crush on M.T. Anderson ever since I read Feed. Does that count? And you totally met him in person that time. Don’t think I’ve forgotten.
I don’t know, for someone who loves her iPod and spends quality time on the Internet, I can be kind of a techno-phobe, but this book did make me feel a little better about stem cell research and cloning, like maybe they aren’t necessarily going to be the downfall of civilization. Like Lily says, we humans can learn. We can adapt. Maybe it will all be okay. And if not, I now know that I can take my heirloom vegetables and fight my way to your house to enjoy microwave popcorn. That’s something.
eisha: It’s a date: you, me, and the end of the world. One of us should maybe stockpile some beer. Oh, and bring all those zombie movie DVDs you’ve got. I’ve got all the X-Files episodes. Between them, we might pick up some survival tips – assuming we can still generate enough power to play them.
Hey, thanks for adoring Jenna with me. We should take on another book together soon, seeing as you keep reading the same books as me and all. Game?
adrienne: You bet!
Anderson, M.T. Feed. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2002. (HC: 9780763617264, PB: 9780763622596)
Farmer, Nancy. The House of the Scorpion. NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2002. (HC: 9780689852220, PB 9780689852237, LP: 9780786250486)
King, Stephen. Pet Sematary. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983. (PB: 9780743412278)
Kress, Nancy. Beggars in Spain. NY: William Morrow, 1993. (HC: 9780688121891, PB: 9780380718771, PB: 9780060733483)
Pearson, Mary E. The Adoration of Jenna Fox. NY: Henry Holt, 2008. (HC: 9780805076684)
Pfeffer, Susan Beth. The Dead and the Gone. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2008. (HC: 9780152063115)
Pfeffer, Susan Beth. Life as We Knew It. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2006. (HC: 9780152058265, PB: 9780152061548)
(*Adrienne started doing this on her posts, and I like it. Classy, don’t you think?)