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The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
“What kind of person was Jenna Fox? Was she someone I even want to remember?” (pg.17)
This is the question 17 year old Jenna wants to know more than anything, but will never stoop so low as to ask. Instead, she goes prying and- like many before her -finds out what, in hindsight, she never wanted to know in the first place. Albeit drawing on a quintessential plot- the secret you don’t want to know- Mary E. Pearson masterfully sculpts this story: its winding staircases, narrow paths, and sharp corners. While most science fiction requires some ‘basic’ knowledge of the setting, current theories, a master’s degree in science, etc., ‘Adoration’ needs nothing of the sort. All you need is an interest in the plot, a sense of wonder, and a bit of a weakness for suspense.
As ‘Adoration’ takes place in the ‘not-so-distant future’, as the versa page describes it, it brings to mind questions that are already taking up space in the public eye. Medical technology is already further than we ever thought possible, and is still growing. Should we attempt to put an end to medical development? When? Would doing so defy our basic human nature? Laws and rules against research would surely just create a spike in underground and secret labs, and if one would find a cure for, say, cancer, would they be too fearful to come out with it? With any luck, they would put the greater good of mankind before themselves…then again; we don’t want an “I Am Legend” (2007 movie version) scenario. On a slightly different, but much related note, how far is too far into discovery? At what point, if any, are you so close to death that you ‘should’ die? What does that even mean? Perhaps even, at what specific point is “dead” really dead? Possibly even more important, who gets to make these decisions?
These questions have no easy answers. They bring up more commonplace issues of today, like overpopulation, immigration, (because surely not all countries would find it in their capabilities to agree on a breaking point!), euthanasia, abortion, global warming and ‘protecting’ the environment, even the time-space continuum. It also brings up one of the most prominent issues today: the healthcare ‘crisis’. Would certain people be denied medical treatment or only given medical treatment that was available in certain years? They contain throwbacks to some of the worst times in human existence: the Holocaust, slavery, and discrimination (racism, sexism, and more of the like). Times we never thought we would go back to, times we thought we had evolved past. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: only time will tell. When these issues come up (and they will); we will have to make some tough decisions. All we can hope for is that qualified people will agree upon a wise option; one that will stick for a good while and that will be the best choice for everyone.
As explained to Jenna by her amputated friend Allys, each person on this earth gets 100 ‘points’ for new body parts (transplants or prosthetics). Allys explains that her prosthetic legs, and the technology they use to communicate with her body, would be about 16 points. A heart would be 35, “throw in lungs and kidneys and you’re at ninety-five points.” (pg. 95) When Ethan asks about brains, Jenna is faced with the ‘facts’: brains are pretty much illegal. You can only restore them up to 49%, and even then only for lost function. For Jenna, who is starting to put together clues and guess that some extremely advanced medical technology was used to heal her body after the accident; this is not your run-of-the-mill, coffee-and-bacon wakeup call. She’s shocked, scared, and more than anything, curious. A short while later, when Jenna finally finds out about what really happened the night of the accident and afterwards, her entire world, which she hoped was finally getting to be stable, was turned upside down. Jenna is led into a literal identity crisis. She wonders where those points lay: In your birth body or in your brain? In your soul? (What is your soul?) The answers to these questions might help Jenna sort out her feelings with much more ease, but there is no answer. Because the ‘points’ system is not legitimate (or legal), she will never know. But it leads her to add many more questions to the already-long list.
Although Jenna’s parents warn her to ‘keep to herself’ and absolutely, under no circumstances, tell anyone what really happened with the accident, she plays the part of the archetypical disobeying, rebellious teen. In this case it does not result in harsh consequences, perhaps Mrs. Pearson thought Jenna’s loss-of-self and serious injuries were enough. Jenna begins to make friends in her small, Southern California town, first Mr. Bender, who lives next door and is of utmost importance to Jenna, both because he was her first ‘new’ friend, (new being post-awakening) and for some other, yet unseen reasons. Mr. Bender is wise, but is harboring a few secrets of his own, allowing the author the use of foreshadowing to the nth degree.
Soon Jenna branches out and makes friends at her small school, finding that although she feels all alone in the world, (and in some ways is,) many feel just like her. Through her new friends (Ethan, Allys, Gabriel and Dane) she discovers and rediscovers not only the world around her but herself, her family, and her life. As Jenna not only rides the tides and turmoil of teenage life, (self-discovery, social skills …) she has to figure out her place- essentially her identity-everywhere: in her family, with her friends, in the rest of the world, with complete strangers, and with acquaintances. Although she is bringing back and reconnecting to her old life, there are still a few learning curves: calling her grandmother a not-exactly-kosher word overheard at school is one example, but she soon gets the hang of that thing we call ‘respectfulness’.
The Adoration of Jenna Fox is overall an uplifting book, but keeps you wondering, worrying and thinking up to the last page. With prose hinting and causing you to question all you know, broken up by periodical poems by Jenna, the suspense slowly mounts up ‘till the end. But her writing isn’t all trepidation and science. It blends genres, mixing teen-relationships, fantasy, social analyzation, and of course, science fiction. At times it is sad, reminding you of Jenna’s seclusion and ‘lost’ feelings; “She puts her arm around me and squeezes. I lift the corner of my mouth. Then the other: a smile. Because I know I am supposed to. It is what she wants.” (pg. 1)
And “I turn back to my room. A wooden chair. A bare desk. A plain bed. So little. Is this all Jenna Fox adds up to?” (pg. 16)
Through Mary Pearson’s timeless sentence and paragraph structure, the reader is whisked off to a land-Jenna’s land. One of non-understanding, confusion, loneliness, and at times misdirection. And although this may sound like somewhere you would not want to be, the book you would abandon: Please. I beg of you not to. “Adoration” is, as the Kirkus Reviews said, “deeply humane and gripping.” It brings out the feelings every one of us has had at one point or another, the feelings we hide away, but they are the feelings that make us human. As is implied by the author, everyone has a secret. The question then, is who do we let know our secret? How can we know who others truly are, if we don’t know ourselves until we open our doors to others? This brings us back to the main theme of the book: What is identity? Where does it lie?
The book is titled as so for a reason: Jenna Fox was adored. She was worshipped, honored, glorified, put up on a pedestal for all the world to see. Or…was she? Jenna always believed, before the accident at least, that her parents thought the world of her and she had to be perfect to please them. She was their “miracle” (problems having children is implied) and could not, would not, was not allowed to fail. Thus, she is turned into a perfectionist (as readers could’ve seen coming). But Jenna realizes only after the accident, when all of her parents’ hopes have come crashing down, that regardless of what she does, what she’s accomplished, even what wrong she does, they love her. If she had never gotten into the accident, if she had still been their ‘good little girl’, they would have, obviously, kept right on adoring her. But when her goals are as small as remembering a ballet recital when she was 12, or walking with a normal gait, they love her all the same. Some may say these goals are even harder then her ‘pre-accident’ ones and they might be. Sometimes the things we can’t see or hold-intangibles are especially hard to attain. This is an archetypical plot, especially for young adult fiction. But Mary Pearson shows superior skill in looping this idea back around to boundaries.
Do other people put boundaries on us? Or do we create them for ourselves, so to please others? Jenna is slowly discovering this problem, as her parents and (live-in) grandmother figure out how to dissuade their old expectations of Jenna; while learning about the new Jenna, almost meeting their daughter and granddaughter for the first time. Jenna will slowly come to terms with her situation, and as some say, “our darkest hour is only 60 minutes”. True, this is a humorous approach, but there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. The author again uses this light to bring up another classic theme that often makes for good literature, especially young adult literature, if not just clichés and inspirational songs: we are only who we perceive ourselves to be. If we think of ourselves as not being able to do something (making friends or trying to remember who we used to be), then we will not be able to do it. However, if we think we can do something, oftentimes we are able to, whether through practice, hard work, or sheer praying.
Another conflict that arises is Jenna vs. Jenna- When New Jenna’s opinions and decisions conflict with opinions Old Jenna would have had, or decisions Old Jenna would’ve made. Jenna doesn’t start to realize the differences until late in the book, but her family does- and that’s hard for them. They’ve lived with the same person for 16 years, and now there’s this new person- she looks the same and sounds the same, but acts differently. This is hard emotionally alone, but when it’s in addition to the stress of having, basically, a two-year-old in the body of a seventeen-year-old and adjusting to a new town… Suffice to say they may not have as much energy to spend on Jenna as they would like. This leads to procrastination of some important decisions, not the best choice in these circumstances…
The essential theme of the book comes down to this: how far would you go to save someone you love? Mary Pearson built her book off of this single question, so it at least deserves its own paragraph in the review. Jenna’s parents went far enough to break the laws for their daughter, far enough to move to the other side of the country and start a new life, bringing almost nothing from their old lives with them. When Mary Pearson’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer, a seed was planted as she sat in the hospital. After the emotional trauma and stress of illness in the family, her daughter was cured and she was able to go back to that seed…. and nourish it into an invigorating read that made the 2009 ALA Best Books for Young Adults list, along with the 2008 School Library Journal Best Books and the Kirkus Best Young Adult Books of 2008. That seed, obviously a very strong one, was actually a hybrid of two ideas she had (hmmm….hybrid…genetically modified….coincidence?). One was, (evidently while being grateful that the type of cancer her daughter had was curable) about how far medicine has advanced in the last fifty years, and how far it would be in fifty years from now. Neither a small nor a light topic, to say the least. But when combined with her other idea, a true wonderful collaboration was made…You see, Pearson’s other idea was this: While admiring (and possibly feeling a slight sense of foreboding) over the tiny babies in the hospital, she wondered how far a parent would really go to save their child, how much they would be willing to put them through. As she says, “Of course, these were only ‘wonderings’ of mine at the time during all the long hours and months waiting in hospital rooms while my own child went through treatment. I didn't know these would be questions that would one day be the impetus for a story.” (Found on the book website, whoisjennafox.com)
Mary Pearson takes to a very Jodi Picoult-esque style of writing, both here and in her other books: the prose, the twisty plot, the cliffhangers, the unimaginable situations…Alas, Pearson is not quite up to par with Picoult: her plots are not as intricate, her characters not as vivid. However, she is getting there with every try: her latest, The Miles Between, drops a bomb at the last minute that you could have never foreseen…My Sister’s Keeper anyone? In “Miles Between”, Destiny and four friends, finding a brand-new car at their disposal, decide to break out of their private school and take a journey searching for ‘one fair day’…. leading each to break out of their own shells and connect to the others, especially Destiny. Secrets are shared, but Des refuses to share anything up until she can’t hold it in anymore. Her friends support her all the way, but it’s another suspenseful read, one you can’t put down until the very last page, to make sure everything works out all right.
Pearson, aside from any allusions, uses some unique writing techniques, ones that I’m sure many after her will try. One of the best techniques is the definitions. Jenna is coming into the world almost like a newborn child; she is lost on the meanings of many words, leading to the reprinting of certain definitions. At the start they are used for their designated purpose, to understand: but as the story gets going, many a hidden meaning are placed inside them. Such as on page 18,
“Mother told me from the start that I must stay close. She is afraid I will get lost.
Lost adj. 1.No longer known. 2. Unable to find the way. 3. Ruined or destroyed.
I’m afraid I already am.”
There’s more. On pg.212, right before one of the most climactic points of the book, when Jenna and Ethan are arguing:
“And I am what I am. I just need a definition for what that is.
Jenna n. 1.Coward. 2. Possibly human. 3. Maybe not. 4. Definitely illegal.”
Hidden underneath that blanket of teen angst and indecisiveness is some real pain, some real problems. Mary E. Pearson does a beautiful job of analyzing all of them, including the supreme one: Who is Jenna Fox? Readers of all ages will race to discover the answer, along the way discovering one of the best stories of the age, akin to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series or Cecilia Galante’s The Patron Saint of Butterflies.
THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX. By Mary E. Pearson. 288 p. Square Fish Reprint Edition. $8.99. (Grade 7 and up)