CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 14 . . . . March 2, 2007
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2007.
138 pp., pbk., $8.95.
Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.
Review by Caitlin J. Berry.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
There's one precious fleeting moment in each day when everything is all right again. It happens in the morning, although perhaps it's the night that should be given the credit for conjuring up the bittersweet images that come to comfort me. In that single moment – the one which lies between waking and dreaming – my spirit can go beyond where my body chains me; between light and darkness, fantasy and reality, how things are and how they should be. In this place, she is waiting. Before the funeral, the hospital, the illness, the grey skin; before the fearful mornings, hoping she had made it through the night; before the guilt from wanting it to be over; before the helplessness of watching as she became weaker and weaker; before Dad got more and more distant; before the doctors; before the diagnosis and most importantly, before the sadness – the eternal sadness and the relentless anger – she comes into my room, wakes me with a gentle touch, caressing the side of my face as she moves the hair back and tucks it behind my ear so she can give me a kiss on the cheek. She used to do that all the time.
Thirteen-year-old Jenevieve (nicknamed J) is dealing with more than your average teenaged angst. Her mother has just died of cancer, her father's brand new girlfriend, Fanny, is more of a monster than she is a human being, and J's father is unapologetically playing favourites with her younger brother, Billy. Indeed, J is very alone in the world — it seems no one understands what she's going through. No one, that is, until her mother's long lost and free-spirited sister, Guinevere, shows up at the funeral — an aunt J never even knew existed.
When J's father promptly announces that J is to spend the summer at camp, Aunt Guin comes to the rescue and offers to have J come and spend the summer at her house on the beach. J jumps at the chance but doesn't know what she's in for until it's too late. For starters, Aunt Guin doesn't even have a car. Their ride to the beach turns out to be Aunt Guin's friend, Art, an albino man who drives a beat up VW van and has a ponytail. Furthermore, Aunt Guin's home is not so much a house as it is an old ruin — it's so unlivable, in fact, that they have to sleep outside. Apparently it's Aunt Guin's custom to buy old houses sight unseen and then take on the challenge of restoring them to new glory.
On the up side, when out for a walk, J meets Connor — an unusual but refreshing boy her age. Connor and J whip up a fast friendship, and he involves her in his quest to find Moonlight Palace, a legendary old dance hall rumoured to be buried underneath the sand dunes and purported to be a portal back in time. As J struggles to embrace her new surroundings, she also struggles with her grief. It seems no amount of her acerbic wit, of the fresh beach air, or of new and distracting relations can free her from the pain of her mother's death.
However, as the summer unfolds and as the house, slowly, is brought back to life, so, too, is J. She grows up: her body changes, her interest in boys (Connor, specifically) grows stronger, and, as she moves through mourning, J comes to understand that Aunt Guin, Art, and Connor, in their wonderful eccentricities, are all there to support, understand and love her. When J and Connor eventually find Moonlight Palace, it proves to be a life-altering experience. J finally realizes that, in life, nothing is truly ever lost, and that she never was, truly, alone.
With Just J, Frizzell presents characters who are lively and believable (with the exception of Fanny, who is portrayed as cartoonishly beastly). Although there are times when J's voice sounds suspiciously wise and embittered for her age, paired with her volatility and anger, J is believably 13 — that is, at least, emotionally.
With regards to craft, Frizzell peppers the story with an element of the mystical that is interesting but not fully developed; therefore, it feels contrived and disorienting when it is presented. Additionally, secondary characters appear too late into the mix: Frizzell introduces Connor's mother and rather pugnacious brothers approximately three-quarters of the way through the novel, and thus they feel superfluous and act to simply distract from the story's main through-line.
Moreover, J's character is very much a victim of circumstance: there is little she can do to change her situation. Primarily what J wants is her mother to still be alive and her grief for her mother to subside. The first is impossible; the latter, albeit painful, is inevitably a matter of time. We are thus left with a protagonist who cannot so much alter her world as adjust to it, and, as a result, there is a flatness and a sense of floating through the story. That said, J's victimization does effectively portray the potential helplessness of a teenager dealing with such a loss.
Overall, Just J is unique in voice and setting, and there is an unabashed emotional truth to J that resonates through out and keeps one turning the pages. The reader does care about her and want her to feel better in the end. Just J is a quiet coming-of-age story that effectively documents the intensity and emotional imprisonment of grief and the importance of having the strength and courage to let go of old ways of being.
Caitlin Berry, a graduate of Vermont College's Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults program, is also a guest reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine. She lives on Vancouver Island in BC.
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