Sometimes I can be quiet. I can hear my boss laughing as I type this because according to her, I’m the giggler and talker of my group and you know what? She’s right. I’m a goofball and I like to make others laugh, which in turns gets me into trouble.
But there are times when I shut down, go still on the inside, and just listen to everything going on around me. A co-worker sneezing or shuffling papers, the tinny muffled sound of music through earbuds, a muttered phone call. Sometimes I’m quiet so I can hear what people really aren’t saying when they talk. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot.
In Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish, Suzy Swanson is one of those kids who just knows a lot about everything: the sleep patterns of ants, how many different kinds of jellyfish there really are out there (it’s a terrifyingly amazing amount), and that jellyfish don’t actually have hearts even though if you look at one long enough it seems to pulse as though a heart beats within. What Suzy can’t explain is how she lost her best friend Franny. She lost her twice: once to the popular group of girls in school and then a second time when Franny goes swimming in the ocean and drowns. After Franny’s death, Suzy shuts down and refuses to speak, the intensity of her grief overwhelming. She’s convinced a type of jellyfish caused the death of her friend, that although Franny was a strong swimmer a jellyfish stung her out in the water causing her to drown.
The breakup of their friendship was an eerily familiar one: Franny began changing and wanted to be a part of the popular girls in middle school while Suzy stayed true to herself and didn’t find the idea of changing herself for other people an option (note to self: always find the Suzys of the world to be friends with). When they were thicker than thieves, Franny told Suzy that if she EVER started acting like one of the airhead popular girls Suzy had her permission to do basically anything to wake her the hell up and return her to normal. During the next few months as Franny became more enmeshed with the popular kids, Suzy tried to go along with her: sitting next to Franny at the popular table and spouting off scientific facts (which I found utterly fascinating and I would love to sit beside her at lunch and learn stuff but I’ve heard it’s a little creepy for a 40-year-old to sit with a kid and talk about life).
But Franny becomes embarrassed by her friend’s brain and the things she says. Eventually, Suzy no longer sits with them at lunch and Franny avoids her and finally they’re no longer friends. Suzy comes up with one hell of a slap in the face to wake Franny up to show her she’s being a clone like the rest of the girls but it backfires. And then that summer, Franny drowns and Suzy thinks a certain type of jellyfish is the culprit. She becomes so obsessed with the idea that she makes a plan to travel across the world to meet a jellyfish expert, a man who had been stung by the deadliest jellyfish and lived to tell the tale.
I don’t really know what to tell you about the lesson of this book. People change? Yeah, they do, sometimes in unfathomable ways. To say the lesson of this book is “It’s okay to be yourself” is too simplistic. Instead, this book is about childhood friendships: ones that aren’t as immortal as we think they are. For every cause we come up with to figure out why a friendship ended, there are a dozen more whys that will never be answered. Grief isn’t owned by grown-ups alone. There is no monopoly on sadness. Children grieve and children shut down and children seek answers. If you want a book that’s all happiness and sunshine and everything ends up alright, don’t pick up this book. But if you want to go on a girl’s journey of grief, guilt, and finding bravery in knowledge, check it out.
But stay out of the water. Those things without heartbeats might seem otherworldly in their beauty but they pack a wallop to send you into the deep, never to come back.