Book Review: Reconstructing Amelia [by Kimberly McCreight]

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Image (c) goodreads.com

In the recent weeks I’ve been spending a little too much time looking at what random people are reading on goodreads, and that’s how I came across Reconstructing Amelia, which seemed quite popular.

Kate Baron is a single mother and a lawyer, and her daughter Amelia goes to a private school in Brooklyn. Amelia is a top student and a great athlete, so when Kate gets a call that Amelia’s been caught cheating, she’s shocked. She assumes it’s a misunderstanding, but she is never able to clarify with Amelia, because Amelia is dead; she jumped from the school roof. It’s ruled a suicide and Kate is somehow trying to pick up the pieces and move on, when she gets a text telling her Amelia didn’t jump. Kate is startled and distraught but she decides to investigate further, and, in the process, uncovers much more about Amelia’s life than she expected.

Before I started reading this, I kind of assumed it would be more psychological than actual mystery – maybe it was the title, the word reconstructing. But although the novel does kind of deal with the mother-daughter relationship in a very direct, uninspired way, much of it is about the mystery surrounding the weeks leading up to Amelia’s death and all the characters who were involved in her life.

I should probably say in defense of this review that when I started reading it, I was slightly impressed. Although her writing style is a little too simple and straightforward, with no distinctive features, McCreight utilises multiple perspectives, which is helpful. Amelia comes alive, and this itself lends a note of tragedy to the novel without much effort – this was a 15 year old girl, she was a whole person, and now she’s gone. Even though the characters seemed a little clichéd – single, harried mom, overachieving nerd – I went along with it for a bit. But gradually everything in the novel just spiralled into some kind of wreckage that was just unbelievable.

Pretty rapidly, the plot took on distinctly soap opera-ish characteristics  – random people were sleeping with each other, mini sororities and fraternities (where the members were somehow secret) were up to all kinds of weird things, and every character ever mentioned was somehow brought into this giant web of messed-up-underhandedness. I don’t know much about US private schools, so I have to assume some of this might actually happen, but to be honest, most of it was just ridiculous. For adults to be involved (and complicit) to such an extent when it came to the covert things their kids were doing was just baffling to me.

I was happy to see some focus on the relationship between Amelia and Kate, but McCreight seemed intent on telling more than showing in this case. We kept being told what a good mother Kate was and how hard she tried, everyone kept trying to justify her not being around enough for Amelia (she loved her so much! etc). The whole thing seemed very monotonous, their relationship was the kind of perfect-and-content that just doesn’t exist in real life considering the actual circumstances.

Amelia herself, on this good-girl pedestal, pretty much has a rough ride downhill in the weeks leading up to her death. None of this makes sense either. I wish Amelia particularly had been more complex, there was a lot of potential in her, definitely even clichéd characters can be developed to something new. But this never happened, and Amelia’s faulty logical reasoning was basically a mainstay of the whole novel – even she didn’t know why she was doing these things, and she could see that it was all too extreme, but somehow she didn’t stop. Had there been more introspection, a greater effort to make Amelia more of a character than a caricature, maybe her decisions would have made more sense (but I doubt it). I very much appreciated the fact that McCreight wanted to examine Amelia’s confusion about her sexuality, but somehow there was very little mental exploration of this when Amelia herself reached some kind of conclusion (even though there was plenty of space for a little self-reflection amidst all that gossip).

As for the ending, I was neither surprised, moved, nor impressed by it. McCreight had written herself into a corner anyways – there weren’t many directions in which she could go.

If you’re a fan of soap operas (and there’s nothing wrong with that), you might enjoy this. Otherwise, it’s a bit of a failure as a mystery, and isn’t much good at examining the interior lives and relationships of a mother and her daughter either.

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