November 2016 – Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
blog by Cindy Bushey
It is November; the presidential election has taken place and Thanksgiving is almost upon us with menus, grocery shopping, food preparation, and accommodating guests crammed into a few short days. How appropriate to read a work of fiction that has way too much jammed into it and often uses language reminiscent of the campaign tones that so distressed many of us. Kimberly McCreight’s debut novel Reconstructing Amelia is an ambitious undertaking that traces a path of bullying, poor choices, peer pressure, and consequences that lead to the death of a teenager at an elite school. It follows the investigation into Amelia’s fatal fall, her mother’s reaction and emotions, and basically reconstructs a few weeks in the life and death of this teen. During this recounting, our readers are drawn into the inner workings of teens’ minds, marveling at how they think and even more at how they talk. As some of our readers who work in schools can attest, the language in this book is everyday real life. The words often come at the reader hard and fast like bullets and are delivered with the intention to wound.
The author has written a very readable book even if the reader doesn’t like the subject matter. Ms. McCreight nails the attitudes and day-to-day life of busy teens juggling school work, sports, and relationships. She shows how easy it is for a teenage girl, who seems to have her head on straight with a healthy self-image, to still slide off the tracks and allow peer pressure to pull her down. The author explores the demands of single parenthood as our readers followed Amelia’s mother, Kate, to work in her prestigious law firm. As parents, we found fault with the balancing act Kate maintained since Amelia was shortchanged on time with mom. We wondered how Kate could ever truly understand her daughter or establish a satisfying relationship with her when she wasn’t physically there with her. Also mystifying was Kate’s refusal to establish the paternity of her daughter. That did not ring true especially as having a parent’s medical background would seem to be common sense. However, as one reader pointed out, often more education means less common sense. Kate embodied that.
The author did an excellent, if disturbing, job of showing how connected teens are to their phones and computer devices and how integral that connection is to their sense of well-being. Amelia was so in thrall to her phone that she would not turn it off even when hurtful, mean texts were arriving throughout the night. In the book and in life, so many teens and adults refuse to understand that anything digital can be found by someone else. People post things to Facebook, Twitter, and SnapChat and text on their phones and then profess to be amazed when the content becomes public. There’s that common sense thing again. It has also been our readers’ observation that people employ texting to avoid talking to each other. Interacting face to face and voice to voice has an intimacy that is missing from the digital world and is vital to grow mature relationships.
Each chapter in the book was told from a different person’s perspective, and some of our readers found the jumping back and forth mildly annoying but still readable. In addition to cliques, clubs, peer pressure, bad choices, hazing, single parenthood, dysfunctional families, teenage hormones, homosexuality, creepy teachers, even creepier older men contacting teenage girls through the internet, and possible child abuse, Ms. McCreight had other subplots that suddenly halted with no resolution. Her male characters were largely unlikeable as were most of the girls. While perfectly portraying teen culture and social situations, the author had glaring details that would never have happened such as the policeman taking Kate along during his investigation. And yet Kate’s emotions and reactions after Amelia’s death were spot on, and our readers could easily believe how she felt.
To sum up, Reconstructing Amelia is a book that demands attention both for the subject matter and the author’s ability. It is not a comfortable read and can be downright disturbing, however it provides a back door into teen culture. The novel attracts and repels but definitely touches chords in the readers’ psyches. To have that effect is powerful for a first effort. Those conflicting emotions are reflected in Zion’s readers votes – 7 were neutral, 1 gave it a knuckle, 5 gave it one thumb up, and 1 gave it two thumbs up.