The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY, 2015.
“Mrs. Turton says that if you lived to be eighty years old, your heart would beat three billion times.”
Suzy Swanson is obsessed with scientific facts. She can recite loads of statistics about jellyfish stings and Shakespeare’s atoms (which, apparently, we all have in abundance. I did not know this.) She could recite facts—past tense—before she decided to disappear. She is not speaking anymore.
“The heart does what it needs to do, one beat after another, until it gets the message that it’s time to stop…”
What Suzy can’t explain is why her best friend, Franny, an accomplished swimmer, drowned. And why did she have to drown before Suzy could apologize for the terrible thing she did to her. So Suzy has chosen to disappear. She no longer speaks.
“A person can become invisible simply by staying quiet.”
Her parents take her to a therapist. Suzy does not speak, so most sessions are one full hour of silence.
Her teacher gets used to the fact that Suzy will not speak. The other kids soon ignore her. Meanwhile, when her class visits an aquarium, Suzy becomes obsessed with jellyfish. There are so many, and so many people are bitten by them every year. Some die. Could this be what happened to Franny?
This is a heart breaking story about a young girl’s desire to make sense of a senseless death, and to somehow come to terms with her own guilty conscience after hurting her best friend in a terrible way. It is also a story of the typical middle school pain of best friends growing up and growing apart. Suzy’s quirky personality that wasn’t an issue when they were little girls, becomes the last straw for Franny when she wants to move on to boys and make-up. And yes, Franny does something unspeakable to Suzy before Suzy, to even the score, hurts her best friend.
This would’ve been a depressing story about loss and middle school angst in the hands of a less gifted author, but Benjamin’s skilled prose peels away the layers of Suzy’s broken heart, facing a loss that is so inexplicable. While wrestling with her own guilt, as well as being the “odd one out” in a new social setting, the reader can well sympathize with Suzy’s choice to disappear. Eventually though, Suzy’s world expands in unexpected ways and she is able to move on.
This is, quite simply, a beautiful, hopeful story.