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Little Willow

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Readergirlz Roundtable: The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

This month, the readergirlz are discussing The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson, a stunning novel about identity and memory. After a tragic accident, Jenna was in a coma for a year. Upon waking, she struggles to recover her memories and uncover the truth about what happened to her.

The book is full of twists and turns. This roundtable has spoilers. You have been warned.

Joining today's roundtable discussion is author Sarah Miller, whose novel Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller was spotlighted at readergirlz in December 2007, and my friend Sam, with whom I regularly share books and book recommendations. I knew both ladies had enjoyed the book as much as I did, so I invited them along. They were warmly welcomed by the other participants: readergirlz divas Lorie Ann Grover, Melissa Walker, and Dia Calhoun, and postergirlz members Shelf Elf, Jackie, HipWriterMama, and me, Little Willow, the moderator.

Little Willow: This book grabbed me right from the beginning.

Shelf Elf: It was the creepy tone and sense of foreboding that got me straight away. Like Jenna, you're immediately trying to figure things out, trying to get to the bottom of what is really going on in her house and her family. That's pretty compelling.

Melissa Walker: I was totally drawn in. What I thought was especially great was that the setting - this crumbling Cotswold house - was just lovely. And lovely settings and mysterious unknowns are very compelling.

Sarah Miller: The very beginning, I liked, but I was wary of the first paragraph in the "Waking" section (pg 6). I've got such an aversion to science fiction that I clammed right up for a second there when the stage was being set with all those tidbits about the future. But that something's-not-quite-right flavor of suspense won me over. That's got to be a hard line to walk: give too much info and the suspense dies, withhold too much and you risk leaving your reader frustrated and flailing for context.

Dia Calhoun: I absolutely cared, I was completely drawn in to Jenna's story. The way the mystery over what had happened to her was slowly revealed was masterful.

Lorie Ann: I opened the work with much anticipation due to the buzz the book was creating. I entered the mystery immediately!

Jackie: This was one that as soon as I started reading, the rest of the world faded away. I carried it with me and read it everywhere - even whilst walking through crowded downtown!

HipWriterMama: I don't normally read science fiction and was hesitant about reading this.  But I was so wrapped up in the story of what happened to Jenna that I couldn't stop reading.

Sam:  I think I was most intrigued by the format of the book than I was by anything else.  I wanted to know what was going to pop up on those gray pages. 

LW: Now that we've opened the can of worms and the genre gates, I'll ask: Do you consider this book to be sci-fi?

Melissa: I don't read much sci-fi, but I'd say yes, though I don't know the real rules of classification. It's also a coming-of-age story, of course, albeit a unique one!

Sarah: Sci-fi. But you know, not that kind of sci-fi. Heh.

Dia: Yes, this is definitely sci-fi.

Lorie Ann: Sci-fi because it is possible, unlike fantasy.

HWM:  I don't read enough sci-fi and I'm not sure I'd really call this one sci-fi.

Jackie: Sci-fi for people who didn't know they liked sci-fi. Like Uglies fans... *smiles*

LW: Yes! People who love the Uglies books by Scott Westerfeld will totally dig The Adoration of Jenna Fox.

Sam:  This is my favorite type of sci-fi, actually.  Reality with a twist of fantasy.  The twist this time is that it takes place in a time where modern medicine seems to be trying to go.  Jenna just happens to live in it.

LW: How soon do you think the medical and technological advances described in Adoration will be possible - or are they possible now? What about the political and environmental situations?

Shelf Elf: I think as medical science breaks more boundaries and makes advances that we would have thought to be impossible, governments are going to become more and more involved in regulating the medical realm, just like in this book. I don't think that is a stretch at all. As for how soon these sorts of things might happen, I can imagine that research around organ transplantation might be able to take us in this direction. When it comes to science, I'm a believer that if people can think about something, and if they're talented enough, they can likely over time find a way to do it.

Melissa: That's the thing -- it didn't seem like a stretch to me.

LW:  Me neither.

Sarah: Me neither. That just adds to the creep-factor. Seems like we ought to be thinking ahead, instead of waiting until the capabilities land in our lap.

Jackie: That's the first challenge of science fiction novels - the readers have to believe in the possiblity. 

Melissa: This seemed very, very possible in the near future, which made me wonder all the more about the politics of it all.

Lorie Ann: I don't know how far out this is. We do see overuse of antibiotics. There's certainly genetic influence in crops and livestock. We shall see, I suppose.

HWM:  I think we are getting close to this.  Cloning is already being done.  I'm sure there are medical ethic issues that will focus on the medical and technical  advances.  And while I'm creeped out by all this, it also gives me hope that maybe there will be a cure in the near future for my sister.  I also wonder, how many people would be willing to do anything to save the person they love?  

Sam:  I think the politics of the science intrigued me more than the actual technology.  Would the goverment have stepped in so aggressively if a different president was in the White House when all hell broke loose?  Environmentally, the impact of people living for hundreds of years instead of decades would be massive if done on a large scale.  Like the donor lists of today, someone has to decide who deserves to get that special gift.

LW: As I wrote in my review of the book: When Jenna watches old home movies, she can't help but think of herself as two people. Since she narrates the story in first person, it's easy to follow this train of thought: there's "Jenna," dancing and smiling away on the recordings, and there's "I" or "me" watching them in the present day. What did you think of this separation of and from self? Do you have such separation from your own past self?

Shelf Elf: I thought the home video aspect of the narrative was super clever. Go Mary E. Pearson!

HWM: I agree with Shelf Elf -- this was very clever.  Speaking for myself, I know when I watch old videos or pictures, I think about how much I've changed and sometimes wonder about whether I'd be the same if I had chosen different paths.    

Shelf Elf: It really reinforced how Jenna felt as if there were two separate Jennas and she was working to place Past Jenna into Present Jenna. A lot of this book is about Jenna's inner conflict, so this element of the story highlights that.

Melissa: Yes, and that's what's so universal about these scenes. We ALL have some kind of separation from our past selves, I think, and Jenna has an even deeper separation, but the general feeling is relatable in a very "normal" way.

LW: I have memories dating back to when I was as young as two years old. I see time moving both quickly and slowly, simultaneously. I am often nostaglic for my childhood, and it's easy for me to think about how different things were five, ten, fifteen years ago, and how different they could have been if I'd done this or done that. I'm fascinated by the butterfly effect and chaos theory. But getting back to Jenna - when she was watching herself, I can imagine that's how I'd feel if I could time travel and suddenly saw another version of myself.

Sarah: I've experienced this in a completely opposite way from what Jenna goes through. Watching old home movies -- especially of events I remember clearly -- I'm stuck by how much went over my head as a kid, and how much more context I've got now to frame those scenes with. Looking at those movies now, I can see the seeds of so much of what happened in the intervening 20 years.

Dia: The utter alienation between her two selves struck me powerfully. It is a separation between her old human self and the new human self she is struggling to develop and understand.

Lorie Ann: I don't have videos of myself as a child or teen. I, like Sarah, imagine I'd marvel at the sameness of my character. That is certainly the case when I watch videos of my daughters. I can see the person I know now in the past action. I do think it was a logical way for Jenna to review her history.

Sam:  Our family did not have a home video recorder.  Photos capture a snippet in time to you recall a memory of, but to actually see and hear how I actually acted as opposed to how I remember acting would be extremely weird and probably make me question my other memories.

LW: I really felt for Jenna, through and through. I loved her character with all of her struggles and her curiosity. What were your impressions of Jenna?

Shelf Elf: For someone who starts off fairly tentative and obliging, she sure becomes a force to be reckoned with. One of the best parts of this reading experience was watching her take charge of her identity and her future, building it for herself.

Melissa: I agree with Shelf Elf, though I always thought you could see that power within her, from chapter 1. I also adored her softer moments--the romance, the nature walks. They balanced out her anger and her pain so nicely.

Dia: Jenna's fascination with the whole question of what makes someone human fascinated me to. Is 90 percent machine and ten percent human enough to still be human? In my mind, absolutely. Is our biology what makes us human, or our heart, mind, soul? I loved these questions.

Lorie Ann: I loved Jenna's strength. Her determination was empowering to me.

HWM: I was awed by how much she kept delving into past, into her identity, into the truth.  Even when she was heartbroken, when she had to choose over her existence, her courage shone through.

LW: What did you make of the shaded pages?

Shelf Elf: They seem like poems to me. Obviously the structure of the text on the page, with the short lines and line breaks, encourages you to look at these pages as poetry. The whole novel brings you inside Jenna's head, but it felt to me like these shaded pages were even more inside her head, her deepest, most secret thoughts.

Melissa: I agree. I felt those were part of Jenna's voice calling to her from the "dark place" that she mentions.

Sarah: Ditto. Her inner voice, maybe the voice that's been least affected by the accident.

Lorie Ann: I was like: Yeah, for verse! I loved the addition of poetry to reflect her innermost thoughts. Good point, Melissa! The poems on dark paper do echo the position of her friends or her thoughts at night.

Jackie: I can so hear you saying that, Lorie Ann: "Yeah, for verse!" I'm sure it would be accompanied with a little arm pump or something!

LW: And a little dance. Lorie Ann is a dancer, and so am I. So was Jenna, before the accident. What did you think of Jenna's memories and feelings related to dance and performance? Of physicality?

Shelf Elf: I liked how the author got us thinking that there was something different about Jenna by having Jenna become increasingly aware of how her body didn't feel the way it used to. The part where Jenna looks at her hands and notices how perfectly beautiful they are and then realizes that they don't feel right, was so spooky and clever.

LW: I loved those parts!

Shelf Elf: It made me wonder if Jenna could actually be imagining things, or if she was kind of neurotic. Then there's that pivotal moment towards the end of the novel when Jenna remembers one of her dance performances and how she wished she could just break out and do whatever she wanted to, rather than all the ballet moves she was expected to do. She thinks about the pressure she felt to be a certain way. Jenna starts to realize that her old physical self might not have been as free as she initially thought.

Dia: That is interesting, Shelf Elf. I think her wish to break out of the ballet moves and just dance as herself, is a reflection of her trying to break out of an enforced structure, possibly a reflection of her trying to break out of the structure enforced upon her by her new body in order to become something wholly new and that is just her.

Lorie Ann: Oooo. That reminds me of  beautiful scene in Aria of the Sea, Dia!

Melissa: I liked that the dancer aspect was there from Jenna's past, but that it was separated from the present. It made her body awareness and the changes she observes even more poignant.

HWM: This was a tough book for me to read.  Some of you may know I have a sister who has a debilitating chronic illness that attacks her muscles.  Jenna echoed a lot of things my sister has mentioned over the years as she had to adapt to new ways that her body moved.  And my sister related a lot of it to dance, since it was one of her favorite things to do.   

LW: Much love to you and your sister, HipWriterMama.

HWM:  Thank you, LW.

Lorie Ann: I loved how Lily challenged her to claim her own dance, but at that point of the story, Jenna was unable to do so. In my novel On Pointe, I also played out the scene where Jenna confronts her mother about dance! It's a common feeling for dancers. Being a dancer before did contrast with her current movement restrictions. However, the loss of dance wasn't as poignant as she seemed ready to leave the ballet before her accident. 

LW: How have accidents changed you, physically, mentally, or emotionally?

Shelf Elf: I've never been in a serious accident, but I have experienced a repetitive strain injury that was quite painful and consuming for many months. Feeling pain over a longer period can be really isolating, because as much as people try to understand, in the end, you're the one waking up with it every day and having to face the day in your body. I think that it made me feel much more empathy for people who struggle with chronic illness or injury. 

Melissa: I've never had a serious accident either, thank goodness.

Sarah: I managed to careen a Town Car into a guard rail (as opposed to the lake behind it) one icy night. No serious injuries other than my wallet, but it spooked me pretty well. Took a while before the awareness of how precarious everyday life really is wore off. Especially when I climbed into the car.

Dia: Accidents can make you fear life, because they are waiting any where, any time, and you have no control over them. I have been in three car accidents over my life, and each one has required more effort, more courage, to get back in the car.

Lorie Ann: I have been in one car accident, as a passenger. It made me realize I was an adult who had to manage the situation without parental help. Getting a chronic illness is like experiencing an accident. Everything changes in a moment. I have lost the ability to dance as I'd like due to rheumatoid arthritis. But I have gained from it as well. 

HWM:  It must have been so hard, Lorie Ann!  I agree with you that a chronic illness is like an accident, though in some ways, I think it can be so much worse since not everyone understands it and the implications surrounding the illness.  It is devastating for the individual and heartbreaking for the family.  There are so many issues on the physical and emotional front for every member of the family that it changes the family dynamics forever.  

LW: The road to recovery is difficult for Jenna, both physically and emotionally. Have you ever had to endure physical therapy? How did your PT and/or your recovery compare to Jenna's?

Sarah: Never-never, thank you very much.

Dia: I have had physical therapy for chronic pain. I am still recovering. But it didn't come close to Jenna's situation.

Lorie Ann: I have not had physical therapy like Jenna's. Thankfully!

Jackie: I haven't either, though I learned a lot about it from Monica Roe's novel Thaw, for whatever that's worth.

LW: Which of the five senses do you value the most? I ask this knowing that I myself cannot pick just one. Which of your senses holds the strongest or most instant connection to your memory?

Shelf Elf: Ooh... this is such a tough one. I know that the sense I value the most is sight. No question. I get such pleasure from being an observer. But I think that sounds offer the most instant connection to my past. For instance, whenever I hear Canada geese honking and flying overhead, even if I'm in the middle of downtown, it makes me freeze on the street and I'm right back on the farm where I grew up where the geese came to live on our pond every spring.

Melissa: Not sure what I value most! I suppose sight, for practical reasons. But smell is the strongest connection to memory for me. A whiff of certain scents can take me right back to a specific time and place. This is a silly example, but every time I smell rubbing alcohol, I'm 9 years old, just had my ears pierced and bending over the sink swabbing.

Sarah: I think most people fear losing their sight more than any other sense, but that's mostly because we're so reliant on sight and associate it with independence. The more I learn about our other senses, the harder it becomes for me to choose. (There's an unusually high suicide rate among people who lose their sense of smell, for example.) As for memory, it'd have to be smell or hearing. Biologically, smell is most closely linked to memory centers in the brain, but I've noticed music has that take-you-back quality for me, too. Probably because I get stuck on an album and play it endlessly until it inevitably becomes linked with a certain time or event. 

Dia: There is no question for me. Sight absolutely. That is because I am a highly visual person who finds a great deal of creative inspiration in landscape.

Lorie Ann: I rely on my sight most. My hearing is not that trained. My smell takes me to the past the fastest of all. I have lost about a third of my sense of taste from cancer treatments.

HWM: Sight and hearing are the two senses I value most.  

LW: I don't have home movies from my childhood; I've never owned a camcorder, though I should. I do have photographs, and my writings, and my memories. How do you capture your special moments and memories: pictures, video, DVDs, digital, scrapbooks, audio . . . ?

Shelf Elf: I'm not much of a capturer, in fact, which is something I'm trying to change. I tend to be the person who never takes pictures, who just wants to be there experiencing things and taking it all in. I am trying to become a better photographer and I'm discovering how wonderful great pictures can be in taking you back inside your best memories.

Melissa: I've kept a diary since I was 9 - that same ear-piercing summer! - and though I don't write in it as regularly as I used to, I still turn to it to remember.

Sarah: I am very much a shutter-bug. I've taken thousands of photos, and scanned hundreds more from my family's vintage albums. I've got a couple audio recordings of my grandparents' history as well.

Dia: I'm like Shelf Elf, not good at recording. I have regretted this several times in my life, and do better at taking pictures now. I've always felt that snapping pictures takes you away from experiencing the moment.

Lorie Ann: I take photos and now love to blog for my record!

HWM: I love taking pictures and now that I have a Flip, I've been taking videos of the kids.

LW: Do your kids ever take video of you? (This is in response to HipWriterMama's comment, obviously, but any of you may respond!)

Lorie Ann: Yes, my daughters occasionally catch me on tape. And then we usually laugh.

Sarah: The cover is so perfect, right down to the little silver butterfly hidden under the jacket.

Shelf Elf: I only have an ARC, so I haven't seen the hidden silver butterfly. Lovely touch. The cover is gorgeous.

LW: Agreed. The hands and the butterfly had multiple meanings. As I mentioned earlier, this book is full of twists and turns. Did it keep you guessing?

Shelf Elf: Absolutely. I think I had a pretty good hunch about what Jenna was about ten pages before it was revealed, but I didn't see the ending coming at all. That's a rare treat.

Melissa: It did! I really had no idea where we were going to end up, and I was highly satisfied with both the ride and the finish.

Sarah: Did it ever. I think the ongoing sense of "What the...?" helped me overlook my sci-fi prejudice.

Dia: I had a sense of something building and building, and an instinct of where it was leading that was almost a feeling of dread. Very powerful.

Jackie: I'm kinda obnoxious in that I don't always want to know much about a book before I commit to reading it - sorta like a blind date - so all I knew about Jenna before reading it was that people who's opinions *I* respect liked it. I had NO idea what I was getting into!

Lorie Ann: Yes, I think her friends were the greatest twist for me. And the one that will stay with me the very longest.

HWM: Great progression of the story.  It did surprise me because I didn't expect Jenna to be so willing to sacrifice herself and her family.

LW: What were your favorite scenes?

Shelf Elf: The scene where Jenna is watching the home video of her at the beach with her parents, and then she has her first memory of taste (the taste of hot chocolate). I liked all of the home video scenes, because you were able to watch Jenna watching herself, which is pretty interesting. That particular scene is one of my favorites because I think it says so much about where Jenna is right at that moment: longing for her past that seems so much simpler than the present, trying to solve the mystery of her identity, wanting to experience something normal.

Melissa: I love all the scenes with Jenna and Lily, and how Lily warms and Jenna remembers that Lily was her confidante, her ally. What a wonderful grandmother.

Dia: I love the scene where Jenna throws away the backup. That is the moment she really comes into her own.

Lorie Ann: Yep. I agree with Dia. And I like the poem at the start titled "Awareness." It is so desperate and empty.

HWM:  I third the backup scene.  That was a huge wow.

LW: Other than Jenna, who was your favorite character?

Shelf Elf: Definitely Lily, her grandmother. It didn't start off that way, because she was just so standoffish and impenetrable. Sometimes her treatment of Jenna even seemed cruel. But then as Jenna's secret is revealed, Lily gets super complex. You don't really know who's side she's on, and I don't think she knows either. She knows how complicated the situation is and she's trying to work it out, just like Jenna. She doesn't pretend to have all of the answers, but she has opinions. She's a character I would love to meet in the real world so that we could have coffee and talk about stuff.

Melissa: Lily! Lily! Shelf Elf said it well.

Sarah: Score three for Lily.

Lorie Ann: Lily for me, too! She's so real!

HWM: Er, if I chose Lily, too, is that okay?

LW: We're all on the same page here. I love the name Lily, so I tend to have high expectations for characters with that name. Grandmother Lily certainly lived up to them. I liked the revelation of secrets, and how Jenna and readers alike realized that secrets can be plain truths, straightforward facts, or emotional recollections - that emotion, background, and motive can make something seem one way to one person and another way to another person, making truth, at times, rather relative. Do you agree?

Sarah: Yes. Those shades of gray are much more realistic than black and white. I also like it when an author respects me enough to let me find my own niche in a continuum, rather than forcing me to one side or another.

LW:  . . . and the ENDING!

Shelf Elf: Loved it. Loved that it really just kept the questions and issues going, even though some resolution was offered. Not exactly a happy ending, way more complicated than that. I think it suits such a rich and complex narrative.

Sarah: Yes. I like a bit of wiggle-room in a conclusion.

HWM:  I loved the ending, but as a parent, I hoped? expected? that this would happen. The ending was realistic and gave a rounded view of the what ifs.

LW: Did you like the fact that it flashed forward, into the future, so you knew of Jenna's life and her family?

Melissa: Yes, I loved this! It was so satisfying as a reader to see that far into the future and hear whisps of what Jenna's life had been, and would be.

Shelf Elf: I loved that too. It reminded me a bit of the end of How I Live Now. It feels right to have a glimpse into Jenna's future life.

Dia: The ending was perfect. I liked the whole issue of loss being brought up in another way, because Jenna had already lost so much of herself, and now, due to her long-life, she was going to lose many of the people she cared about as well. I love how that was resolved.

HWM: Dia, you said this so well.  Agreed.

Lorie Ann: I could have closed the book without the look into the future. I was completely satisfied without it!

LW: Did you agree with the choices Jenna made, not only the end, but also throughout the book?

Dia: I might not have made the same choices, for me, but I think for Jenna's character, the choices were absolutely right and true.

Lorie Ann: I believed her choices stayed in character. I could celebrate them.

LW: As did I.

Jackie: It's been about 9 months since I read the book, but I keep correlating the story to Frankenstein. Is it just me?

Sarah: I hadn't thought about it, but yeah, you're right about Frankenstein. Not only in terms of the creation and the consequences, but also in the way the "creatures" rise above expectations to take control of their own lives.

LW: Yes - neither the creature nor Jenna had much of a choice regarding their "births" (or re-births, or physical changes), but they did have the desire to take their lives into their own hands.

Lorie Ann: I was so happy to see Frankenstein in the postegirlz' recommended reads this month!

Dia: This book really touched me, because of the enormous universal questions it raised through the experience of one particular girl. Bravo!

Lorie Ann: Kudos to Mary [Pearson] for making sci-fi accessible to a wide audience and raising an alert on important social issues and responsibilities!

To learn more about this book, read the March 2009 issue of readergirlz and check out my full-length book review!

To discuss this book in depth with other readers and the author herself, please visit the readergirlz forum.

Check out our fun recreate the book cover challenge for The Adoration of Jenna Fox!

Tags: books, postergirlz, readergirlz, roundtables

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