Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book Review: Innocence, by Jane Mendelsohn

by Jane Mendelsohn
Riverhead Books
199 pages

Challenges: 2nds Challenge, Fifty States Challenge

When I discover a new author and fall in love with his or her work, it's inevitable that I'll want to read everything he or she has ever written.  More often than not, after being wowed by the first book I've read, I'll arrive at the next with larger-than-life expectations.  Sometimes the book lives up to them, but other times? Not so much.

Unfortunately, the latter was the case with Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn.  I absolutely loved her latest novel, American Music, her third novel and the first of her books I'd read. (See my review here.) So, when I spotted her second novel on the library's shelves, I was thrilled.

Innocence is different from American Music in that this is a young adult (YA) novel - which is perfectly fine by me.  During this 2.5 year book blogging adventure of mine, one of the things I've been surprised to discover is the quality of much of the YA fiction these days.  I never imagined I'd be reading YA in my 40s, but here I am. 

There is, however, a segment of YA that doesn't hold much appeal for me - and that's the whole vampire and paranormal worlds.  If that is also true for you, then you'd be advised to steer clear of Innocence.  (But if that is your thing, then this might be your book. And it's a very quick read, too.  I read it in one evening, so it would be perfect for a read-a-thon or something.)

I say all this because Innocence started off as the type of novel I enjoy.  It's the story of Beckett, a teenage girl who is dealing with the death of her mother, her father's grief, and falling in love (reminiscent, a bit, of Beth Kephart's Nothing But Ghosts).  She's recently moved with her father from Long Island to an apartment in New York City and is in a new school ... where there is an epidemic of group suicides. 

And the reader is right there with her in the gory scene, right from the first page.  Beckett has just stumbled onto a suicide scene, or witnessed one, or been part of one (the reader is initially unsure which; this becomes clear by the end).  Three of the most beautiful girls in school ... gone. 

This - combined with mourning her mother and falling in love - would probably be enough of a plot to carry Innocence.  But there's more.  Much more.  Beckett's father begins dating Pamela, the school nurse.  There's the issue of Beckett deciding whether to sleep with Tobey, the boyfriend.  She gets her period. As if the suicides weren't enough, more tragedy unfolds.  And then there's still another twist, this one involving Pamela and her motives regarding Beckett.  

It's all connected, but for me it seemed to be too much for a novel that is only 199 pages, making the real meat of the story almost gratuitious and predictable. Kind of like, what the hell, let's throw this element in here while we're at it.   And although I sympathized with her, I didn't feel connected to Beckett and I couldn't see her and Tobey as a couple. 

These issues notwithstanding, one of the elements I liked about Innocence was the writing, just as I did with American Music.  There's so much vividness in Mendelsohn's words, so much color amid stark tragedy and city life.  There is a feeling of being pulled along with the crazy roller-coaster-like plot, riding along the words as if on a horse with flags unfurling behind.  This I liked, but as with everything else, it eventually came to feel like too much.  Ultimately, this one was a "meh" read for me. 

So, I'm 1/1 with Jane Mendelsohn's books, which is fine. I think the difference between the two novels is a sign of Mendelsohn's literary versatility. Her first novel is I Was Amelia Earhart (she embodies the character of the famed pilot) and despite not liking Innocence, I plan to read her debut ... as well as any future novels by this unpredictable and talented writer. 

What Other Bloggers Thought:

Three bloggers discuss their thoughts on this book here.  (They liked it and got much, much more from this in terms of symbolism and analysis than I did.  They put me to shame.) 

Book Junkie had a difficult time with this one too.  (Whew!  Glad it wasn't just me!)

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

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