'Reconstructing Amelia': Kimberly McCreight's debut novel shines a light on teen-girl culture


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Kimberly McCreight's debut novel, "Reconstructing Amelia," made me feel a lot of things, not the least of which was to feel lucky that I'm not a teenager in the age of Facebook, cell phones, blogging, texting, etc. It also made me feel frustrated with its flaws.

But ultimately, I wanted to keep reading -- I looked forward to being able to get back to it -- and that's the critical test, it seems to me; I was in the mood for something not too taxing, it's a big fat book, and I was glad it lasted. And so I recommend it, but with reservations.


"RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA"

By Kimberly McCreight
HarperCollins ($25.99).


Early on, we learn that Amelia, a student at a pricey private high school in Brooklyn, has killed herself by jumping off the roof of the school. Or at least that's how it appears until her mother gets a text that says her daughter didn't jump. At which point, the mother begins reconstructing Amelia, piecing together her life as viewed through the lens of her texts and Facebook postings, as well as a gossip blog by a mystery author at school, and conversations with Amelia's friends, other parents, and school personnel.

What I liked about this book is how accessible it was, and relevant. It's an easy world to enter, particularly if you are a mother, touching as it does on timely hot-button issues like cyberbullying, catfishing (adopting a fake cyber-identity), emerging sexual identity, and, for good measure, harried-working-mom guilt.

The handling of that last topic will undoubtedly irritate some, as we see the mom, Kate, a single parent with the one child, miss every opportunity to connect with her daughter on account of her high-powered lawyer job. The author bends over backward to say Kate is a loving, plugged-in parent, but mostly she is depicted closing every (metaphorical) door Amelia opens, at every critical juncture. For example, this conversation, which we hear from Amelia's point of view, between Amelia and her mom:

"Are you OK, Amelia?" she asked, her hand on the doorknob. "Because I am stressed about work, and it would be good if I could get there. But I can stay if you need me to. You know that, right?"

But I wasn't actually so sure I did know it. I wasn't sure of anything. I'd been standing there all mad because she wasn't asking me what was wrong, and now that she had, I didn't want to tell her anything. Because what could she do to fix it? Nothing. Anything she did would only make it worse. That I was sure about. All I wanted to do was cry. Alone.

Interactions like that also remind you that this is ultimately a sad book because nothing can be undone, no misunderstandings made right. The author tells the story both from Amelia's point of view, and from her mother, Kate's, but the person I came to care about the most, Amelia -- she was dead and that's sad. But the story kept moving forward, offering an interesting look at teen-girl culture in a tech-mad world. Whether or not it is an accurate representation of that culture, I can't say. I imagine some girls would say it rings true, and others would mightily disagree, particularly where it touches on issues around sexual identity.

I'd like to believe the kind of bullying dramatized in the novel doesn't go on, but I'm sure it does. How often it reaches the fevered pitch of Amelia's world, though, I don't know. Much strains credibility, and in that way, it invites speculation as to how realistic any of it is. For example, Lew, the police officer assigned to the case, allows Kate to tag along on crucial interviews. This by itself seems irregular enough, but even after Kate invariably says the wrong thing at every opportunity, Lew keeps inviting her along. Completely unbelievable. And yet! I hung right in there with her! So go figure.

I suppose "Reconstructing Amelia" felt like kind of a guilty pleasure except that I can't quite categorize a book about a dead girl that way, even if it's fiction. So I'm thinking of how to categorize it and this is what I've come up with: If Sherlock Holmes and "Gossip Girl" got together and had a baby, this novel would be it.

One last note: This might be an interesting book for mothers and teen daughters to read together. It could spark some interesting conversations (although I have only teen sons and so am not an authority and will not be held responsible for any eye-rolling that might ensue).

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Judy Wertheimer, a writer living in Squirrel Hill, reviews first novels for the Post-Gazette (wertheimer.jb@gmail.com).


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