Author: Kimberly McCreight
Simon & Schuster RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
How much would you tell your mother? How much would you tell your child?
Most parents would say they know their children fairly well. I would. There’s also a lot I don’t know. I don’t know everything that goes inside Bear and Monkey’s heads. I don’t know everything they’ve done. Only what they choose to share … or what I find out. Reconstructing Amelia explores the theme that parents don’t and can’t know everything there is to know about their child, especially teenagers – they’re very good at keeping secrets or selective sharing. It’s a theme that appeals to me as a mother and a stepmother, particularly as Miss Attitude is moving towards her teenage years.
The phone call comes during the meeting of Kate’s career. It’s her daughter’s exclusive Brooklyn private school calling with disturbing information: her 15-year-old daughter Amelia has been suspended for cheating. Kate can hardly believe it. There must be a mistake; Amelia is intelligent, high achieving and level-headed. Why would she cheat? With these questions in her mind, Kate puts work behind her and makes her way to the school, with unexpected delays giving her plenty of time to think. At the school she is greeted by sirens wailing and ambulance lights blazing. And the horrific, unbelievable news that Amelia is dead, after jumping off the roof in an act of “spontaneous suicide”.
Kate reluctantly accepts this information, though it doesn’t sit well with what she knows of her daughter. But when she receives an anonymous text saying “Amelia didn’t jump” it confirms what she knows deep down: Amelia wouldn’t kill herself. Despite little initial support from police and the school, Kate is determined to find out what really happened to Amelia. Bit by by she reconstructs her daughter’s life, sifting through emails, text messages, Facebook postings and more in a bid to uncover why Amelia was on the roof that day. It’s a challenging, emotionally-laden task that stirs up all Kate’s insecurities about her ability as a mother and the bonds she shares with Amelia.
But what if her relationship with Amelia hadn’t been as good as she’d believed. What if Kate really hadn’t known Amelia that well after all?
Reconstructing Amelia is told through the alternate viewpoints of Kate, in the aftermath of Amelia’s death, and Amelia, in the lead-up to her death. There are also a number of short flashbacks to Kate’s life before her pregnancy which give more insight into why she kept quiet about the name of Amelia’s father, and foreshadows links to Amelia’s present-day activities. I liked this approach because if we had only Kate’s viewpoint, we’d never know how Amelia was truly feeling about the activities she was caught up in. The story moves along at a fairly even pace; I did find myself caught up in it quickly, I think because of the shock value. Some of the things Amelia’s peers were in to – the dissection of each others’ sex lives, early sexualisation of young people, bullying, humiliation – are things that really, unfortunately, do happen. And as a mother, how could I not be concerned and resolve to keep maintaining good relationships with my children? There’s only so far I can protect them, only so much role-modelling I can do. As a book that forces you to re-examine relationships with pre-teens and teens, this one hits the mark.
Plot-wise, Reconstructing Amelia is nothing new – private school cliques, mean girls, hazing rituals and so on. That didn’t really bother me though. The issues (suicide, bullying, sexuality, ethics, parent-child relationships, peer pressure, drugs, single parenthood and so on) are still relevant, and as a mother, it’s good to keep on top of those issues. I was pretty sheltered as a teenager and it’s good to have that reminder of what it felt like back then – in fact, that’s what I got most out of this book, second to my concerns as a mother. The book allows us to consider the issues from two different viewpoints – the mother and daughter – and I appreciated that reminder that we each have different perceptions of what’s going on.
Structurally there are a couple of issues. The biggest for me was that the reader is always two (or more) steps ahead of Kate as she struggles to make sense of her daughter’s secret life, which greatly reduces the tension. By the time the loose ends are tied up, it feels a bit drawn out (probably because I’d worked most of it out) and some of the motivations just did not ring true. The other bit that didn’t really ring true for me was the exposing of Ben, the mystery boy who texts Amelia but avoids meeting her; and the exposing of the mystery blogger. No spoilers, but that didn’t really work for me.
Reconstructing Amelia has had mixed reviews, with characterisation, structure and plot dividing opinions. While I share some of those opinions, and I’ve expressed some in this review, overall I enjoyed reading this book. It might be nothing new, but it is unsettling and thought-provoking – especially if you are the parent of a teenager or pre-teen. Part mystery, part coming-of-age, it’s a good debut novel for McCreight and I look forward to seeing how her work develops.
Available from good bookstores and Simon & Schuster. This copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
Bookish treat: When I was a teenager, I loved sweets and junk food. Sad, but true. And the teens I know are no different. So, remember what you liked eating most when you were a teen and relive that moment.
PS. If you have time, check out this Reconstructing Amelia trailer. Anything you want your mum to tell you?