Reconstructing Amelia is my second favorite novel of the last few years about a bunch of snooty high school kids where the title character dies in the opening pages. The paragon of this genre, of course, is Paul Murray's Skippy Dies, and McCreight's novel has more than a few similarities to Murray's — including secret cliques and sordid sexual rendezvous. And both stories are essentially about unraveling the mystery surrounding how the title character died.
But whereas Murray's novel is more slow-burn literary fiction, McCreight's is fast and furious, with all the requisite surprises and twists of a thriller. And whereas Skippy dies by choking on a doughnut (or did he?), Amelia supposedly has committed a "spur-of-the-moment suicide" by jumping off the roof of the school building (or did she?), having been accused of cheating on an English paper.
The novel alternates between Amelia's story leading up to her death and her mother, Kate's, in the aftermath, dealing with her grief. Amelia, a cute, but bookish girl, is just starting her sophomore year at a high-priced Brooklyn school, when she's tapped to join the Magpies, the school's most prestigious secret society. Her mother is a hard-working lawyer and she's never met her father, and so Amelia is lonely, and despite a promise to her best friend Sylvia that they'd never join one of the stupid clubs, she feels herself drawn in, flattered (if a little skeptical) about why these beautiful, rich, popular girls would want her. Are their motives legitimate, or is there something more sinister going on behind the scenes?
Kate's story happens a few weeks after Amelia's death — one day, she gets a text that says simply: "Amelia didn't jump." Knowing full well her daughter wouldn't have killed herself (despite the police's ruling, after a hasty investigation), she starts re-investigating the case, with the help of a new detective. They talk to Amelia's friends and their parents, and Kate begins wondering if the whole episode isn't partly a result of some of her own past choices. Who really is Amelia's father? What bearing does a single indiscretion many years ago with the senior partner of her law firm have on this situation?
But of course the real question — and the best part of the novel — is how did Amelia die? Did she actually kill herself? Was she pushed? Is there another explanation? And that's what keeps you turning the pages to sleuth along with Kate, and to see how deep Amelia had gotten herself, to try to figure out what happened for yourself before the characters do.
It's a fun, fast novel — and a good summer read — but it has more than few missteps. Some of the twists and surprises seem really unwarranted, or even unnecessary. And some of the dilemmas on which the plot hinges seem like they could've been easily solved. But overall, if you liked Skippy Dies, and if like me, you like the New York snob story, you'll probably enjoy this, too.