Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Reconstructing Amelia," by Kimberly McCreight (HarperCollins, 2013)

The Primary Cast:

Kate: A hard-working junior partner at a cut-throat law firm and a single mother who is always struggling to juggle her exciting job and her beloved daughter - until her daughter dies.

Amelia: A straight-A overachiever whose resume is stuffed with extracurriculars - until she apparently kills herself after getting caught cheating on a paper.

The Secondary Cast:

Jeremy: Kate's boss - kind-hearted, well-meaning, but oblivious.

Dylan: A mysterious girl at Amelia's school, with whom Amelia develops a special bond.

Zadie: A popular but vicious classmate who inexplicably makes Amelia the target of her rage and jealousy.

Ben: A friend Amelia met online, with whom she's been exchanging texts. However, they've never met in person.

Lew: The new detective assigned to Amelia's case after the first detective takes a suspicious absence.

Sylvia: Amelia's best friend, whose life revolves around constant boy troubles.

Phillip Woodhouse: The headmaster of Grace Hall, the exclusive Park Slope prep school.

Angst Checklist:

  • Secret Societies
  • Suicide
  • Bullying
  • Infidelity
  • Best Friendship
  • Working Mothers vs. Stay At Home Mothers
  • Do I Really Have To Tell My Daughter About Her Real Dad?
  • Teenage Sexuality
  • Ineffective School Policies
  • Jealousy

The Word: The worst day of Kate's life begins when she receives a phone call during an important client meeting at her law firm, telling her that her daughter Amelia has been suspended for cheating. Thanks to work issues and traffic, she's an hour late retrieving her daughter from school - one hour too late. By the time Kate arrives, Amelia is dead after plummeting off the school's roof. The brusque detective on the case declares it a suicide.

Kate is devastated. She blames herself, a single mother, for spending too many long hours at her gruelling job and not enough with her daughter. She thought her daughter was a grade-A student - why would she cheat on a paper? How could Kate not have known her daughter was troubled enough to take her own life?

These questions haunt her, until she receives a mysterious text a month later: "Amelia didn't jump."

Flash back two months, and we have Amelia, gearing up for a new school year at Grace Hall Academy. Now's the time that the school's secret clubs start recruiting new members. Although Amelia and her best friend Sylvia promise each other to give these clubs a wide berth, when overachieving, bookish Amelia is inexplicably tapped to join the popular Magpies, she can't resist going along to see what all the fuss is about.

Reconstructing Amelia is an interesting blend of genres. Half the book is a mystery, told in Kate's wavering, emotionally fragile voice as she tries to piece together what happened, discovering a surprising number of pieces that don't fit - missing coroner reports, malicious texts, half-naked pictures, a hostile school faculty, and the recurring question of Amelia's biological father.

The other half is a YA narrative told, in flashbacks, from Amelia's point of view, as she's subjected to the Magpies' humiliating and arbitrary hazing rituals, which she endures in order to further her new, burgeoning relationship with Dylan, a popular classmate. Amelia discovers new things about herself when she's around Dylan, but is it worth the escalating abuse she takes from Zadie, Dylan's best friend?

Impressively, both sides of the novel braid together nicely to tell an interesting story about mothers and daughters - how well do mothers really know their daughters, and vice versa? Kate feels guilty for how much her job kept her away from her daughter, and later blames herself for not seeing the signs that Amelia was in trouble. Yet her investigation into Amelia's classmates reveals that even their wealthy stay-at-home mothers can find ways to screw up and misunderstand their own children.

That being said, the first half of the novel is pretty slow going - while her motivations and emotions are understandable, Kate isn't quite remarkable or competent enough to carry off the mystery aspect of the novel by herself. What I mean is, she doesn't have a lot of narrative agency. Beyond engaging the new detective and her firm's tech wizard to track down clues, she spends most of the novel navel gazing, waiting by the phone for the professionals to give her more information, or else mucking up the case when she ignores their advice in a moment of emotional crisis. The bulk of her thoughts rests on examining herself as much as Amelia - whether her lifestyle, her professional choices, or the methods she used to cover up her own misbegotten past contributed to Amelia's death. All of this is fascinating stuff, but if you were expecting more of a mystery-detective story, you might be disappointed.

The second half of the novel picks up, and it's very satisfying to watch all the narrative chickens come home to roost. Kate, for all that she's not a very good detective by any stretch of the imagination, is an engaging and sympathetic character. Amelia even more so - especially since her development and awakening arrive tarnished with painful dramatic irony. The strength of the secondary cast is a little more hit-and-miss. Some (like Jeremy and Sylvia) are well-drawn and poignant, while others (particularly the other mothers) are painted with a superficial and stereotypical brush of Wealthy Put-Together Perfection that I thought was a little hypocritical to the novel's overall theme.

I find it particularly appropriate that this review is coming out on Mother's Day, since motherhood and its definition are one of the major themes of Reconstructing Amelia. What makes one a good mother? And does being a good mother mean knowing everything about your children, or will they always find some way to keep part of their lives secret and separate?

Reconstructing Amelia is a moderately entertaining and satisfying yarn with some interesting themes. I could have done with less passivity in Kate, a little more of a mystery element, and, honestly, a little more depth to some of the secondary characters. But otherwise, a solid effort.


  1. I loved this book and I think it's interesting you found the first part slow going since I knew immediately it was a book I wouldn't be able to put down. know that could be because it so effectively hit my interests straight away.

    Great review!

  2. Oh, I had this one recommended to me. B from you says that perhaps I actually will like it. I might check out the audio, depending on how the narration is done. Pacing and characters often improve a bit in the format switch, though it can really go either way. Passive heroine and flat side characters are a bit worrisome however.

  3. mayceegreene7:12 PM

    Interestingly, the story of the complex relationship between the mother
    and her daughter is only gradually revealed as the plot hurries along. I
    experienced a growing understanding of the subtleties of that
    relationship and felt that was the most rewarding aspect of the book. It
    is an understanding that is likely to stay with me for the longest of
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