Review of the Day: Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life
And now it is time to discuss a book that I consider to be the best American work of children’s fiction for the year 2006. I kid you not. My ear is often pressed to the buzz surrounding the notable books for children, and as of yet I have heard nary a peep regarding Wendy Mass’s amazing new story. Ms. Mass, if you recall, wowed the YA literary scene with her extraordinary “A Mango-Shaped Space” a couple of years ago. Now she’s given us an honestly funny book about a kid who just happens to be searching for the meaning of life. This, in and of itself, is not extraordinary. What managed to throw me for a loop though is that Ms. Mass is able to tell his tale without a drop of pretension or boredom AND the book’s laugh-out-loud funny. The rare combination of “meaning” and “humor” is a rare once in a lifetime event for any writer. After reading this book though, I suspect Ms. Mass may have many more such books nestled inside of her.
What would you do if a mysterious box arrived in your home from your long dead father? What if the box contained a beautiful smaller box of light-colored wood with a keyhole on each side? And what if the smaller box were engraved with the following: “THE MEANING OF LIFE. FOR JEREMY FINK TO OPEN ON HIS 13TH BIRTHDAY”? Well, if you were Jeremy Fink you’d probably want to find the keys to open that box and pronto. After all, Jeremy’s 13th birthday is mere weeks away. With his best friend (and sometimes thief) Lizzy at his side, the two decide to do whatever it takes to locate the keys that will open the box. Unfortunately, that plan seems to involve breaking and entering which, in turn, leads to them doing community service for an elderly (and incredibly rich) antiques dealer. Now Jeremy is breaking out of his all too comfortable routines to find out what the meaning of life is, even if he can’t find the keys he wants. What he may discover, however, is that as large and vast as the universe may be, there are people who will always help you along. Even if they seem like complete strangers.
Maybe it was the fact that Jeremy reminded me of my younger brother. Maybe it was the fact that Jeremy could say he named his couch Mongo when he was three. Or maybe it was that most people in this book have their own distinct collection. Jeremy collects mutant candy. Lizzy collects playing cards but ONLY the ones she can find on the street and she can never collect a duplicate or a torn card. Or maybe it was the fact that the book would tell you facts like when you look in the mirror you're seeing yourself as slightly younger, due to the speed of light. Whatever it was, this book won my instant love.
Of course, the danger with creating any book that searches for a philosophical end is that it ends up reading like “Sophie’s World”. And no offense to Jostein Gaarder, but how many kids do you know that want to learn about Descartes? So what Mass does is a little subtler than hand kids a primer in Philosophy 101. The meaning of life isn’t just a philosophical search. It’s a scientific one and a religious one and, most important of all, a personal one. Fair enough, but kids don’t like to seek out meaning of their own accord, right? Some do, but the vast amount of them would rather read something mysterious, fun, and funny, right? Well credit Mass with understanding this right from the start. Yes, this book is all about Jeremy’s personal journey. For example, when he writes in his notebook that there are two kinds of choices in the world, it’s done in such a way that children will get what he’s saying. But it’s also full of things like a kid who names his fish after other animals since his mom won’t let him have “real pets”. Plus there’s the quest aspect to it all. Your dead father has just sent you something in the mail and you must scour all of New York to locate the keys that will open his box. How cool is that?
Mass also covers her bases. As I was reading the book I was thoroughly enjoying it, but I was worried. I’m incredibly suspicious of any writer who relies on “fate” or “coincidence” to cover up for his or her poor writing (hence my dislike of “Chasing Vermeer”). And this book had a heckuva lot of coincidences in it at first. I was getting edgy as I reached the end... and then all became clear. Mass does nothing without justification. The result? The book is oddly believable without losing any of the magic of the story. Part of this book involves Jeremy and Lizzy being sent by the elderly antiques dealer to different people in the city who pawned personal items to the dealer’s grandfather when they were children. With each return the kids see who these people were when they were kids and what they turned into when they reached adulthood. They also are able to pursue their own quest and ask each person, be it an elderly woman, a rich minimalist, or a man of science, what they see as the meaning of life. Oh it sounds quaint, doesn’t it? But that’s just the thing, man. Wendy Mass pulls it off AND makes it interesting AND injects quite a lot of humor in to boot. I know I keep harping on the funnier aspects of the book, but a book with meaning that never cracks a smile isn’t going to involve kids half as much as one that does. That and the fact that I’ve always firmly believed that humor is much harder that pathos.
Then there are the basic parts of any book and how they fit together. You know, the characters and such. Now if I were to find a single hairline flaw in the novel, I guess I’d have to say that it takes a really long time for the reader to warm up to Lizzy. She comes across as rather self-centered at the start and it takes a while for the reader to realize that she’s desperate for more women in her life. Her mom abandoned both her and her dad when she was just a baby and since then Jeremy’s mom has taken Lizzy under her wing. It takes a little while to see Lizzy as someone other than a thief and a bully, but Mass eventually gives her enough depth so that you can understand Jeremy’s platonic affection. Plus I loved the little moments where Jeremy would apologize to Lizzy by mumbling that he was sorry and tapping the toe of her sneaker with his foot. Somehow a little thing like that strikes me as more "real" than most novels I’ve read.
And the writing? Mass whips off lines like, “It would bother some people if their best friend only half-listened to them, but I figure talking to Lizzy is one step better than talking to myself. At least this way people on the street don’t stare at me.” She places her book in a very distinct time period when the subway system switched from tokens to metro cards and Pluto was still a planet. And while I’m at it (this point doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of my review so I’m going to just plop it down right here) may I give credit to th fact that Mass really gets the helpfulness of New Yorkers down pat? When I moved to New York in 2004 I encountered more complete strangers who were willing to give me directions or help than anywhere else I’d lived in the continental U.S. In “Jeremy Fink” those people are perfectly replicated for this NYC based tale. It’s nice to see them finally get their due.
When I write reviews for School Library Journal I must always fill out a yes or a no to a question on their form that says, “If the story has a dominant theme, is it too obviously superimposed on the plot?” Now few books have any kind of dominant theme to begin with. And this book definitely has one, no question. But is it too obvious here? Does it eclipse the rest of the story? Not a jot, sayeth I! Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
So who’s the age group for this book? I mean, “A Mango Shaped Space” was supposedly YA lit and I (by and large) do not read books for teens. This book, in contrast, is written about a twelve-year-old boy who is about to turn thirteen. And then there’s also the fact that the boy in the book is searching for something that most teenagers themselves are looking for. Meaning. But at the same time the book is a kind of quest novel and there are so many fun details in it (like the hula hoop contest Jeremy and Lizzy are forced to enter or his all-consuming love of candy in its myriad forms) that younger children would get a kick out of it as well. So it seems odd to say this, but I’m going to recommend this book for children ages 9 to 19. How many titles can you think of off the top of your brain that you could say the same for?
Jeremy’s grandmother somewhat summarizes the book herself when she says that opening your eyes to different experiences is, “the only way you’ll learn what you’re capable of.” Then she reminds them that her jams are melting and that is that. After reading this book I’m sure every kid will yearn to embark on a journey of personal discovery as Jeremy and Lizzy do here. My respect for Wendy Mass contains multitudes. This is a strong title and a must-read book of 2006. Purchase forthwith, me lovelies.
Notes On the Cover: I like it. You know, any marketing that uses that standard white background with objects against it is treading shaky ground. But the good people at Little Brown were able to latch on to one of the most interesting aspects of the book. The search for keys. And keys, for that matter, are very cool. Admittedly, a snarky side of me would have been just as happy with a cover full of deformed M&Ms, but that wouldn’t really be a fair representation of what the book’s all about, now would it? In any case, the keys are neat, the publisher was smart enough to include one on the spine (too often spines get the raw end of the deal), and the idea of suspending them by different colored thread is fabulous. I love it! Unfortunately it's apparently a very difficult cover to display online. The one above is the best I could find. Sorry!