I hate the need to market a book by comparing it to recent mass market successes. In this case, I’m talking about the incessant need to compare crime/thriller novels with ‘unconventional’ female leads to Gone Girl. I loved Gone Girl. I’m not looking for the next Gone Girl. And if I’m looking for something with a similar feel, I’m probably going to read a Flynn novel, because it’s her style that makes me love her books. Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight is nothing like that novel. The only thing they have in common is a female lead. That is it. Zero other things.
I came across Reconstructing Amelia on a list of essential crime novels, or something like that. It might have been a Buzzfeed list. Most of the novels held no interest for me, but this one (and another I haven’t read yet) stuck out because of the premise. In this novel, McCreight tells us the story of a mother trying to figure out if her daughter actually committed suicide by retracing Amelia’s life. Fascinating, right? The story has potential, but the execution failed.
This could have been a story about relationships between mothers and daughters. About how no one really ever totally knows another person, even their child. There are enough mother/daughter relationships mentioned that the comparisons are readily available. It should have been a story of discovery with a mystery subplot. Instead, it turned out to be the story of two perfectly perfect people and the one dimensional ‘troubles’ in their lives. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not a terrible read. I’d put it on the lower side of average. It could have been so much better. I was expecting more. After I found it on that list, I did my usual Goodread perusal and there were some really good responses. From reviewers I generally consider well opinioned. People talked about its unputdownableness. About being brought to tears by the moving relationship between mother and daughter. Genre spanning storytelling. The emotional depth. It was exactly what I was looking for… I should have known.
Reclaiming Amelia ran into a problem that many dual narrative novels encounter – one of the stories is significantly more believable/enjoyable than the other. If you haven’t read the book, stop reading here or spoil yourself silly. The choice is yours.
Amelia’s story is the superior of the two narratives. It would have made a potentially excellent standalone YA novel. Interspersed with Gossip Girl like blog posts (I’m not the only one to notice this), Amelia takes us through the events that took her seemingly perfect life from on track to a school suspension and death in just a couple months. I read the audiobook version, so the email and text exchanges were a little aggravating, but I know this was absolutely a problem with my format choice. However annoying, the text exchanges in the book are important. They demonstrate how the anonymity of electronic communication sometimes leads to oversharing, standoffishness, or terrorizing. The distance created through texting allows people to become something they’re not. There are two real examples of this type of behaviour in the novel.
The first is Ben. The second is the Maggies.
Ben – This boy who tracked Amelia down through some summer program for smart kids. A non-threatening, gay, teenage boy she can pour her heart out to. Their relationship begins innocently enough. But eventually, Amelia feels closer to him than to her oldest friend. Than her mother. She is telling him things she isn’t telling anyone else. And she’s never met this boy. Ever. And every time she suggests they meet, something comes up to break their plans. Hello – catfish. It’s pretty clear early on in the book that Ben is not who he claims to be. But what does that mean? Does talking to someone you don’t know make the importance of talking through your issues any less valuable? Does it make a difference when you’re talking to someone who’s not who you think you are? When you have a level of trust that doesn’t actually exist? Amelia thinks she can rely on Ben, but when she really needs him, he isn’t there for her. This is made worse when we discover that Ben is actually is, but she never knows that, so that’ll come up again later. The point is, when the only person you can really rely on is someone you’ve never met, maybe it’s time to reevaluate the people in your life. The problem isn’t always them. Sometimes, it’s us. We’re not saying the things we needed to in order to keep our relationships strong.
Amelia has always had two strong personal relationships in her life, her mother and her best friend, Sylvia. They are the people that she’s supposed to talk to when things are tough. But, when she’s terrorized by anonymous text messages from the Maggies, she says nothing. She allows these girls to convince her that she’s less than. Girls who block their numbers and inundate someone who was almost their friend only days earlier with the worst possible things girls can say to one another. Girls brought together as part of a club that exists under an umbrella of secrecy and control. From the moment Amelia’s tapped to join the group, her involvement makes no sense. Not to her, and not to the others in the group. Zadie (remember, audiobook, I have no idea how this is actually spelled and no one seems to talk about her in the reviews) outright hates Amelia. Obviously and clearly. She’s got some serious hatred, even though they don’t seem to have had any interaction prior to their first Magpie meet up. So why did she pick her to join the group?
It doesn’t make any sense. But that’s because of Zadie. Not the way she acts but the character. She’s so unbelievably shallow. This isn’t a character. It’s a caricature. The badass, bad girl with her plaid and fishnets and eyeliner. Swinging her black hair and her attitude. She has no driving force except her appearance. Now, I don’t need a huge backstory. I don’t need to know why she treats people badly. I don’t want to empathize with Zadie. But I do need to believe that she’s something more than just a stereotype. But she’s only one of the many, many stereotypical characters in the story. Amelia is the smart, sporty, perfect girl. Kate is her smart, perfect, single mother who was raised by a cold, distant, working mother. Sylvia is the slutty, boy obsessed friend. Liz is the cool, hipster teacher – who actually has some redeeming qualities because she’s the one writing the blog I mentioned earlier. Honestly, I’d love to read Liz’s version of the novel. See her perspective of the girls. That would be interesting. And then there’s Zadie’s mother…
And that brings us into Kate’s portion of the novel. This is where we start to get into the really ridiculous stuff that turns the book from something potentially good into the plot for a soap opera. Okay, so we’ve got fatherless Amelia. Who has no interest in father because, while not adequately developed, her relationship with her mom does seem reasonably decent. And the guy her mom says is her father and the jerk coworker Kate thinks is her father and then the reveal that Amelia’s father is actually Kate’s boss (Jeremy the philanderer, but also Ben the texter)… Yeah. And Zadie’s mother (whose name I cannot remember) who also had an affair with Jeremy. Who is, for some reason, so jealous of Kate that she made a point of reestablishing long discouraged clubs at the school, and through her role on the board, railroaded the school into accepting through avoidance. Then somehow had her daughter become head of the Magpies and convinced Zadie to tap Amelia for admission and then begins sending Amelia hateful anonymous texts about her parents… why? To terrorize Kate? To get back at Jeremy? To get Zadie and Amelia to realize that their half-sisters? Yeah. That’s in here too. Two children of illicit affairs at the same school in the same grade. But it means nothing. Zadie doesn’t know about it until after Amelia’s death. Kate doesn’t know about it until after Amelia’s death. Amelia never finds out. I cannot understand the motivation that put all of the events of the book into action. It makes no sense. Why on earth would this woman do these things? The motivation on which the entire novel pivots is missing.
But even less believable than the Zadie’s mother storyline is the police investigation. So, the initial cop that shows up writes it off as suicide (which actually seems reasonable based on the initial evidence) and then suddenly quits and goes to work for Zadie’s stepfather. Mmm hmmm… Anyway, when Kate starts getting texts saying Amelia didn’t do it, she is somehow able to convince the police to reopen the investigation. They send a seemingly competent officer so run the case. Honestly, he reads reasonable, and yet none of his actions make sense. He allows all the electronic data collection to be done my Kate’s firm’s IT guy instead of by the police tech department? Yeah, that’ll hold up in court. And then instead of having other trained police officers review the material, he splits the workload with Kate and leaves her alone to read through her dead daughter’s text messages? And if that’s not bad enough, he then takes her to interview witnesses and potential suspects… Come On! Now, I’ll admit, most of my police procedure knowledge comes from Law & Order, but even without any actual training, I know that would never happen. And Kate’s a fucking lawyer. She knows that she’s corrupting every piece of evidence she finds and pursues on her own. And that could have actually been something that was built into the story, how she throws away her career for her daughter or whatever, but it’s just totally glazed over. There’s never any mention that this is out of character, or incredibly stupid. It’s so unbelievable that I actually wanted to skip Kate’s parts most of the time.
I wanted to feel for these characters. I wanted to feel their relationships. To be able to see that a single mother’s relationship with her daughter can be stronger and more meaningful that traditional arrangements (Kate and Amelia vs any of the other mother/daughter pairings). How simple actions can lead to destruction of friendships (Syliva and Amelia/Zadie and Dylan). How new feelings can spring from the strangest circumstances (Dylan and Amelia). Self-realization when our beliefs crumble around us (Kate and everyone). But instead I got nothing. And this whole realization that Amelia is gay could have been a nice subplot, but it falls flat. It’s not the worst thing in the book, but as with so many other parts it could have been better. So could her relationship with Dylan and the reveal of Dylan’s whatever disorder/social anxiety/sociaopathy. But again, we get so little of it, it means nothing. There’s just too much going on for anything to stand out. McCreight is trying to cram so many ingredients into the story that none of them are able to shine. It’s like sweet potato poutine. Sounds amazing. Tastes like a whole lot of nothing. It’ll do in a pinch.