The Thing About Jellyfish
This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Twelve-year-old Suzy Swanson learns that her best friend, Franny, has drowned while on vacation in Maryland. Stunned and overcome with grief, Suzy wonders how this could have happened to someone who was such a good swimmer. The narrative begins shortly after Franny’s funeral. Suzy has completely stopped talking, even to her divorced parents, her brother, Aaron, and his boyfriend, Rocco. Mom and Dad have decided to send her to counseling.
On a school field trip to an aquarium, Suzy sees a jellyfish exhibit. She reads about one called an Irukandji, with possibly the deadliest venom in the world. Though this jellyfish is native to Australia, it has begun to migrate. Suzy is immediately convinced Franny was stung by an Irukandji, and she sets out to prove it.
The story is peppered with flashback chapters, in which Suzy narrates her memories as if talking to Franny. Readers learn how the girls met at a young age in a swim class and became inseparable. Once, while discussing a popular, arrogant girl at school, Franny made Suzy promise never to let her get like that. She told Suzy to send her a big message, something she couldn’t ignore, if she ever behaved that way.
In sixth grade, Franny started caring about hair and clothes and a boy named Dylan. Soon, she began sitting with the pretty girls at lunch. Suzy sat with them until her attempts at small talk made her seem weird and undesirable. Franny eventually began to ignore her.
Suzy extensively researches jellyfish and decides she needs to enlist the help of a jellyfish expert. She crosses a few possibilities off the list, including a 64-year-old long-distance swimmer named Diana Nyad, who will soon make her fifth attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida.
Suzy finally decides to contact an Australian biology professor named Dr. Jamie Seymour. When Suzy’s counselor stresses the importance of communicating with people face to face, Suzy decides to find a way to get to Australia.
More flashback chapters reveal Suzy’s guilt over the last time she saw Franny alive. After watching Franny’s behavior grow increasingly selfish and cruel, Suzy decided she had to keep her promise. She had to make Franny realize she had become everything she never wanted to be.
Suzy froze thin sheets of her own urine in restaurant take-out containers and shoved the frozen sheets through the slits in Franny’s locker. She knew they would melt and cause a horrible mess. She imagined Franny would look over at her and realize this was her wake-up call. Then Franny would apologize for what she had become, and they could be friends again.
In reality, Franny had to clean out her stinky locker in humiliation and never even made eye contact with Suzy. Susy kept expecting Franny to call, but Franny never did. Suzy’s last memory of Franny was watching her walk down the school hallway carrying trash bags full of ruined, urine-scented belongings.
Suzy’s science teacher, Mrs. Turton, knows something is wrong with the girl. She invites Suzy to eat lunches with her in her classroom and often sets up interesting science videos to watch. Suzy’s lab partner, Justin Maloney, also joins them. He’s a boy with ADHD, who has often gotten a bad rap. Now that his new meds are working, he is much more focused and better behaved than before. The other students have begun calling Suzy Medusa because of her crazy hair and behavior. In response, Justin starts calling her Belle as in the bell, the lovely pulsating part of a jellyfish.
Suzy reads about a 12-year-old girl and her two younger siblings who flew across the U.S. without their parents’ consent. She decides she can fly to Australia by buying a ticket online. She uses her dad’s credit card number and makes careful plans about where she’ll stay and how she’ll get to Jamie’s office. She’s convinced Jamie can help her prove Franny was stung, and that this will somehow make sense of everything that’s happened.
Suzy also steals money from her mom and brother to pay for her expenses. She makes it all the way to the airport ticket counter when she learns she doesn’t have the visa required for travel to Australia. The ticket agent helps a distraught Suzy get to a waiting area. Mom, Aaron and Rocco eventually show up, and Suzy begins to tell them what she was trying to do.
She apologizes for stealing from them. As they sit together in the airport, they see a news story on the screens about Diana Nyad. She has just successfully completed the 103-mile swim from Cuba to Florida. In the midst of her grief, Suzy is inspired by Diana’s bravery.
Justin invites Suzy to meet him at the school costume dance. Even though she’s frightened, she decides to be brave and try it. Suzy makes a quick call to her dad to apologize for all the trouble. He gets choked up because he’s so glad to hear her speaking again.
Outside the dance, Suzy sees a girl in her class who is also nervous about the dance. The girl asks if they can walk through the door into the dance together. Suzy takes a deep breath, and the girls walk together into the room full of laughter and pulsating lights.
Other Belief Systems
This book makes a number of references to evolution, the universe expanding, an immortal type of jellyfish and the earth being billions of years old. Suzy believes time and space are the same thing, and that all moments in time may exist simultaneously. One science teacher explains that people need science when they’ve come to the end of human knowledge. Science is the process for finding the explanations no one else can give, the teacher says. Suzy speculates self-confidence is magic that can carry you through anything.
The words heck, sucks, butt and p--- each appear a time or two. A scientist injects a mouse with jellyfish venom and indifferently watches as it writhes in pain. One of Suzy’s classmates throws a live frog hard against a tree to watch the creature splatter.
Suzy’s brother lives with his boyfriend, Rocco. Suzy describes her mother’s nervousness when having Rocco over for the first time, but now, Rocco is an accepted member of the family. The men kiss in one scene, and Rocco writes Aaron a love letter. Suzy notes the tidiness and lack of drama in the jellyfish mating rituals. The male opens his mouth to release sperm, and it passes into the female. There is no physical connection.
Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.
Alcohol: Dad has a beer as part of the weekly Chinese dinner routine with Suzy.
Theft: As she makes plans to visit Jamie in Australia, Suzy methodically steals money and credit card information from her parents. She also steals cash from her brother’s apartment. She feels guilty about it but thinks it is the only way to find out the truth about Franny’s death.
Other: After Suzy plants urine in Franny’s locker, she goes into the bathroom. When she sits on the toilet, she finds a single drop of blood in her underwear. She feels like the deep crimson color is blaring like a warning or an accusation.
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Readability Age Range
10 to 14
Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group Inc.