Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Reconstructing Amelia: Death Becomes Her?

Kimberly McCreight's debut 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.


  1. Call me clueless, but I absolutely did not make the Skippy Dies connection until I read your review. And I read and enjoyed both of these books.

    Speaking of New York snob stories, have you read any of Jonathan Dee's books? His latest two are both very New York privilege-y, though not sure about the earlier ones.

    1. Hmm - maybe that comparison is more of a stretch than I thought? I've never read Dee, but his latest one has been on my radar for awhile. You'd recommend?

    2. It's not really a stretch - you're right, they are similar - the books are just so different from the premise, I guess, that I never saw the connection until you pointed it out.

      I really, really liked A Thousand Pardons. I never did write a review (bad book blogger?) but it was excellent.

  2. I love that she made wise use of the various forms of technology that can be woven into a modern-day plot -- without it seeming forced or cheesy. A very satisfying read, easy to recommend to friends, and I CANT wait to see what McCreight writes next!

  3. A great read in spite of the opening premise of the suicide of Amelia. A mother's love for her daughter and her tenacity to look what seems like the forgone conclusion of her daughters suicide.