The Thing About Jellyfish: An Exploration into the Human Mind

Adya SarinJanuary 4, 2024Finding MeaningMedia

The thing about this book is that it feels as though we’ve lived the protagonist's life by the end of it.

Having evolved from a failed magazine article about Ali Benjamin (the author’s) newfound fascination with jellyfish, The Thing About Jellyfish masterfully weaves together a coming-of-age story with a deeper, more implicitly metaphorical understanding of the human psyche. Having read this at the ripe age of 10, I know for a fact that the profound impact the book had on my understanding of the world was intentional. Ali Benjamin’s ability to deliver a meaningful message through the lines of a realistic young adult novel is nothing short of fascinating.

Suzy Swanson is your typical seventh grader. Franny Jackson is her best friend, and together they have made a promise to always stay friends and never become like the other “snotty girls” in their year. But when they enter middle school, Franny finds new friends, leaving Suzy confused, hurt, and, most frighteningly, alone. However, Franny’s life is cut short over the summer break when she drowns in Maryland, leaving Suzy disconcerted. Her already fragmented understanding of the world breaks down and Suzy finds herself without a voice; the trauma of Franny’s death drives her to stop speaking entirely. After a school trip to the aquarium, Suzy learns about jellyfish and imagines that jellyfish were the cause of Franny’s death. The rest of the book takes the reader on Suzy’s, quite frankly, tumultuous journey in search of tangible evidence (in the form of Dr. Jamie Seymour) to back up this seemingly arbitrary claim. As she navigates this volatile time, the quest for scientific discovery is her only anchor. Suzy’s newfound fascination with jellyfish consumes her, and her need to dissect and understand Franny’s cause of death distracts her from her grief.

Benjamin has done an astounding job with Suzy’s narrative voice; reading it feels like skimming through the pages of a 12-year-old’s diary. It's through her oscillation between a very matter-of-fact tone and an exaggeratedly whimsical one that the character stands out as authentic, the feelings genuine, and the plotline believable. Benjamin's melancholic, pensive, and, at times, wistful descriptions leave a profound mark on the reader’s understanding of the text and of Suzy’s obscure emotional state, allowing her grief to seep into us. I suppose one element that truly stands out when looking at the book in its entirety is that Suzy never explicitly allows herself to grieve, or even accept the death of her best friend for what it was — a freak accident. Her own subconscious ignorance of the event that has taken place and her immediate need to rationalize the death through scientific yet at times elegiac prose particularly resonates with the reader. The author’s in-depth exploration of the adolescent human mind after having to confront something as traumatic and unprecedented as the death of a loved one is very well done.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward, and Suzy’s journey through the challenges of middle school is written in a way that is both practical and relatable to the reader. Although Suzy’s actions may come across as arbitrary at times, they remain grounded in her grief. Benjamin effectively captures Suzy’s awkward adolescence, be it through her isolation from the rest of her classmates, the anxiety that arises at the prospect of giving an oral presentation to the rest of her class, or her capricious relationship with her now-divorced parents.

Although the book was primarily written for a similarly middle school audience, the themes of grief, mourning, and acceptance Benjamin explores appeal to a wide variety of age groups. The universal experience of loss is beautifully delineated in less than 400 pages of fictional prose. Personally, I recommend this book to every single person I meet. Having read it in the fifth grade, I continue to carry it around with me everywhere I go, reading it when I have to confront my own emotions at arbitrary points in the day.

I would give the book five stars out of five. I didn’t see, and still don’t see, any moments where the plot line is lagging, or the characters are inconsistent, or any aspect of the book’s universe is out of place. Suzy’s emotional and mental well-being (or lack thereof) is highly emphasized, since our vantage point of the world is solely through her eyes. The book depicts what it means for your world to break down right at your hands — something the reader hopefully never has to endure.

Adya is a 14-year-old student at the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India. You can normally find her reading a book or dancing. One of her favorite pastimes is playing with animals (especially her cat).