Friday, August 1, 2008

Book Review: Mary E. Pearson's The Adoration of Jenna Fox

My Amazon books finally came! Squee!

I had a hard time picking which book I'd read first. In the end, I decided on The Adoration of Jenna Fox, in part because I was curious about that present tone PJ kept mentioning, and because there was a recent review over on Tabitha's site (which I've not read yet as I didn't want to ruin the book's ending till I finished).

Plot: Jenna Fox wakes up from a coma 18 months after a terrible car crash. She has no memory of the crash, and a lot has changed in those 18 comatose months: she now lives with her grandmother and mother in California while her father continues to work in Boston, her grandmother--once her closest friend--is cold and distant from her, and her memory has huge holes in it--she can quote the entire text of Walden* from memory, but has no memories at all of ever having a best friend. Throughout the story, she pieces together what exactly happened to her--body and soul. Spoilers ahead: highlight the blank space below for a bit more info:
The "twist" is not that much of a surprise, at least not for me: Jenna was actually so damaged in the car wreck that her bio-engineer father manufactured a new body for her--the only thing left of the "original" Jenna is 10% of her brain. I saw that coming a mile away. The real question of the story isn't really what happened to Jenna--it's more psychological than that. For example: if "Jenna" is 10% of a brain and 90% biological goo in fake skin, is she still human? Does she have a soul? What, ethically, should have been done to her body--let it die, or save it--and now that she's been "saved," what should be done with her?
Oh. And just to get this off my chest. I didn't really like the last chapter. I'm sorry. I just felt that she'd raised issues--such as how she'll never age, or how sex seems to be out of the question--and then threw together a happy ending without telling how she overcame those issues. She just says she spent 70 years with Ethan and never even mentions how weird it was for her to be 17 forever and he ages? It was too happy an ending for me; too black and white in an otherwise gray book.
As a reader, I adored the book. Here's how you can tell: I read it all yesterday. That's pretty rare for me--I tend to read 3-4 books at once, dropping one and picking up another. Not this time. I read the entire thing yesterday.

But, you know, I don't want this blog to be a book review site; it's a writing site. So let's look at the book from a writer's perspective.

1. Episodic Plot. Looking at the book structurally, the plot is rather episodic. One thing happens, then another. It basically goes step-by-step. With the exception of the more philosophical issues touched on in my spoilers, there isn't really a driving force that carries on throughout the entire book--there's not a mystery to solve, or clues to gather. It really is step 1, step 2, step 3.

That's not to say that's bad. In some books, well, it IS bad--that kind of writing can make a book boring. If this was a mystery, or a thriller, or even a romance, episodic plot would be the kiss of death. Just look at what it did to Nobody's Princess. But this book isn't really a genre book, and an episodic plot works. The book isn't really about what happens--although that is good to know--it's more about what you think about what happened.

2. Present tense writing. Hate it. I really do. A book reads "naturally" to me when it is in imperfect past tense.

But.

This book is so well written that I really didn't notice the present tense. Even now, if I had not known that it was present tense from PJ's recommendation, I don't think I'd have noticed.

But.

If I had noticed the present tense--if it had all been in the now with nothing from the past--that might have been a deal-breaker for me.

3. Beautiful craft. This is the most important aspect of the book. Mary Pearson did two dangerous things in writing: episodic plot and present tense. However, the book was so beautifully written, that these two things weren't really an issue for me. Visually, the book was beautiful--the "chapters" weren't so much chapters as new headers in front of new ideas or pieces of the plot. Occasionally, there were darker pages with a "chapter" that read more like a poem. "Chapter" length varied from a few pages to a few sentences. Furthermore, this was tight writing. You know how people say cut everything not needed? Yeah, she did that. Every. single. sentence. was essential to the book.

I don't know how to define it**. I can just say: this is a beautifully written book.

*May I just say: if what happened to Jenna ever happens to me, could someone please give me a better book to have memorized than Walden?!?
**OK, maybe I do know how to define it. You know how you read something that's so good that you kinda wanna cry because it's over, and you also kinda wanna cry because you know you'll never, ever be able to write something that good. It's a bit like that.
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