Saturday, July 12, 2008

The adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson - review

The adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

Interesting. The adoration of Jenna Fox is many things. It is:
  • a young adult speculative fiction novel for girls who don't like science fiction

  • a coming-of-age novel for people who eschew the touchy-feely (me!)

  • a medical thriller, fully as suspenseful as early Robin Cook

  • a meditation on choices nearly as profound as Walden, which it frequently quotes

  • And I think it is, very subtly, a pro-life statement.

    Now, I, like the reviewers at SLJ, Publishers Weekly, The Horn Book, etc., and my colleague Other Paula, who recommended it to me, enjoyed this book. I liked Jenna, who has awoken from a coma with no memory, and who struggles to assimilate information that will help her interpret her world and make sense of her often conflicting impressions. I enjoyed watching her evaluate her former life, explore her new life, and forge a new identity from the best pieces of both. The near-future world that Pearson has invented, full of genetically engineered species and antibiotic-resistant bacteria and oxygenated transplant gel loaded with neurochips, is both believable and intriguing. And I thought that "waking from a coma" was a serviceable metaphor for teenagers just beginning to realize that they are not merely extensions of (or reactions against) their parents, and that they can choose what kind of person to be.

    But although this book is a suspenseful, thrilling read, I went through it slowly, because there's a lot going on in it beyond the mystery of Jenna's past. Specifically, the frequent ethics discussions merit very close attention.

    In Jenna's world, "Science" (it almost wears a capital S in this book) is responsible for the disappearance of native species and an epidemic that killed a quarter of the world's population. In response, the federal government has enacted laws and created an ethics board that controls access to and application of advanced medical treatments. To ensure equitable access, a point system is in place, under which every person is assigned 100 points. Medical procedures use up those points: physicians decide whether a person 'needs', say, biofeedback software for their prosthetic limbs, or a kidney, or a heart transplant, based on how many points they have left.

    Jenna is the daughter of a biotechnology billionaire, and she has recovered from a truly devastating car accident. I don't think I'm giving away too much of the plot when I say that Jenna has exceeded her points.

    This fact, along with various revelations pertaining to what was lost and what recovered from Jenna's body after the crash, as well as a quadruple amputee whom she meets at school, and the fate of her best friends from before the accident, leads Jenna to question her right - and desire - to be alive.

    I was skating right along with Jenna, feeling her dilemmas, rejoicing in her rebellions, all the way up to the book's ending, an artificial-feeling happy coda set two hundred and forty years later. 240 years is a long time: long enough, presumably, for a character to gain complete perspective. And 240 years later, Jenna is content with her choices, and the world's society backs her up. She muses on faith and science, and thinks that they are two sides of the same coin. At this point, I thought to myself, "'Faith'? Was this book about faith?" Earlier in the book, Jenna wondered if she had a soul, and her grandmother is Catholic... and then I realized that Jenna's post-coma memories include events that happened before she could talk: a near-drowning as a toddler, her baptism, and... being in her mother's womb. This representation of a fetus's perceptions and feelings is extremely provocative and, amid Pearson's well-written examinations of the meaning and value of human life, I think it's unnecessary. It made me go back and re-examine all of the science and ethics in the book.

    I feel sure that Mary Pearson did not write The Adoration of Jenna Fox (although, if that title isn't Jesus-y enough for you, I'll write the sequel, and call it Ecce Jenna) as Christian or pro-life propaganda.

    Until that ending, I would even say that her presentation of the ethical issues faced by the characters is basically balanced - though that point system thing rather reeks of pro-life rhetoric. If the book had been left open-ended, I would recommend it without reservation. It could be used in many terrific science-class discussion topics (some of which are listed in the discussion guide, some, not). Teen literature should challenge convictions, should poke holes in the status quo.

    But resolving Jenna's ethical conflicts - presenting her choice as the one right choice - damages the credibility of the book. Sure, "it's just fiction," but I'd like to give this book more credit than that. You quote Walden that much, you kind of better be prepared to defend your choices.

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