Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

I’m not a fan of present tense. Every book I’ve read that used present tense has always needed an adjustment period from me. Sometimes I get over it and go on to enjoy the book, sometimes not. But I’ve never just picked up a book, written in present tense, and been hooked from page one.

Then, I read The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson.

Wow. I didn’t even notice the present tense until I was three pages into it. And when I finally picked up on it, I had to go back to see if something had switched. Nope; it had been that way all along. Maybe it was the author’s style. Maybe it was her way with words. Or maybe it was the nature of the story. Probably all three. I raised an eyebrow, impressed, and read on.

The story opens with Jenna Fox trying to remember who she used to be, and it progresses as she gets flashes of her past, plus creates new memories from her present. Jenna puts a lot of value on her present self, and the fact that it makes her unique. Something she doesn’t want to lose. I find the “present” parallels very intriguing, and it works well for the story.

The story itself is also quite interesting. Jenna is on a quest to discover where that spark of humanity comes from, since she’s afraid she doesn’t have it. She continues searching, learning more about who and what she is, eventually finding her way to acceptance. This isn’t a pull-you-in-to-shock-and-awe-you kind of story. It’s more subtle, and sometimes a little hard to connect with Jenna. But I was okay with that considering both the nature of Jenna and of the story.

There were only two things that gave me pause. The first was the subplot with Dane. I loved the parallels drawn here, and turn of events as well. But it felt…unfinished. I’m not exactly sure why, though. The second was with the car accident. That must have been resolved, especially with all the information given in the last chapter. But it was never mentioned. I would have liked a little something on that. But, overall, this book gets two enthusiastic thumbs up.

I’m still not a fan of present tense, but this book has shown me that it really does have its place and can be done effectively. Thank you, Mary Pearson. :)


Marcia said...

I used to think present tense was weird and pretentious. I still agree with the writer Lynne Sharon Schwartz who said something to the effect that past tense implies a story was deemed worthy of telling after it happened, that we can know a story is really THERE, whereas present tense is conceited because it expects the reader to find the character's moment-by-moment life interesting when logically nobody can know what's coming. But now I agree with Schwartz only in the sense that this is a disadvantage of present tense, just as all POVs and tenses have their pluses and minuses. It's not a reason not to use it; it's only a reason to select tense, as you do everything else, carefully, weighing the needs of the story.

I also think we're simply getting used to present tense, seeing it in more and more books.

My WIP is in present tense, and I had no clue that was going to happen. Starting out, I was experimenting with first/third and past tense, and it just kind of lay there on the page. I tried first person present tense, and boom, it came to life. I've since done some thinking about why I NEED present tense for the story. I've concluded that sometimes the book tells US what it needs.

As always, great post!

Tabitha said...

Lynne Sharon Schwartz has wise words. :) But so do you: "this is a disadvantage of present tense, just as all POVs and tenses have their pluses and minuses." I think you're absolutely right. If I hadn't read Jenna Fox and actually seen an effective use of present tense, I'd probably disagree with you. So I'm really glad I read this book. :)

Good luck with your WIP. I haven't progressed far enough in my writing abilities to even think about tackling this tense, so I hope you'll keep us informed as to how it's going! :)

PJ Hoover said...

I'm with Marcia on my current WIP. It's not something I planned at all. I started it in past, and by the second page, I kept slipping into present tense. Weird feeling. So I went back, played around with it, and decided to go for it. It felt so right.
Or should I say: It feels so right.
Adoration did a great job as did Madapple and the Libba Bray books.
Thanks for the post! :)
I'm curious to read more comments on it.

Jacqui said...

All my picture books are in present tense.

Novels, though, I think are harder, because something about how long they are implies a lot of time passing; like by the end of the book, the beginning should be in past tense, if that makes sense.

Tabitha said...

PJ - I hope many people comment so you can hear more experiences with present tense. Wish I had more to add, but I'm just not there yet. :) Good luck with your WIP!!

Jacqui - picture books in present tense make sense to me, because the audience is younger and may not always have a grasp of things that happened in the past. To my three-year-old, everything in the past happened "yesterday." :)

I totally agree about novel-length works and the passage of time. That's my whole problem with present tense - telling the story as it unfolds doesn't make sense to me. Unless the story is one of self-discovery, like Jenna Fox, where the main character remembers nothing. Or Hannah in Thirteen Reasons Why, where she's telling her story through tapes.

Marcia said...

I agree that present tense in picture books makes more sense, while in a novel it's a little strange for exactly the reason you cite.

Just curious: Have you read RULES? That's also in present. I didn't realize it till I RE-read it.

Mary Witzl said...

Ages ago, I wrote a short story in the present tense and I honestly wasn't even aware I'd done so. Two reviewers asked me why I'd used the present tense and I could not find an answer; it just seemed right. I've since reread my story and blushed at how silly it sounds, but it seemed right at the time.

I like what Marcia says about the present tense sounding arrogant -- as though it assumes the reader will breathlessly follow the events of the story.

I learn so much reading your blog!

Tabitha said...

Marcia - I have read Rules, and I loved it! It didn't take long for me to get used to the present tense. The story was so interesting that I didn't care how it was being told. :) Great book.

Mary - you know, I think I did the same thing. Except I switched to past tense halfway through. So when I went back to read it, I got really confused. Then I changed it all to past tense and never looked back. Until now, of course. :)

Angie Frazier said...

Very interesting conversation about present tense. I think if present tense is organic to the story, then it works. I can sometimes tell when it's forced, and then of course it doesn't work. Tabitha, I am not there in my writing either to attempt present tense. Well, actually, I've attempted it, but failed miserably!!

Tabitha said...

I totally agree about when it sounds forced. I think many of the present tense stories out there sound that way to me.

I think Mary Pearson is such a great writer. Have you read her other stuff? I've read A Room on Lorelei Street, and have used it as an example of really effective 3rd person limited POV. After Jenna Fox, I think I need to hunt down the rest of her stuff. :)

Unknown said...

I was OK with the Dane did feel a bit like a gun on the mantle that never goes off, but on the other hand, I think her point was just that some people, despite being 100% human, still didn't have a soul.

As for the car crash biggest problem was actually that she revealed that Jenna hadn't been driving. I felt like it was a moot point. It could just as easily have been Jenna driving--running away from the out-of-control party was enough of an "excuse" for me to allow the accident without assigning too much blame...making Keri be the driver felt like a bit of a cop-out to me.

Tabitha said...

I was okay with the Dane thing too. I loved the parallels she drew and the direction she took that subplot. It just felt...unfinished. That was my only issue.

But I was okay with Jenna not driving the car. It added tension as to whether or not she should turn off her friends' machines, because she's going against self-protection and being completely humane toward her friends. That, to me, showed great strength of character. And it's something Dane would NEVER have done.

Jacqui said...

I just finished this and came to reread your review.

I think what got me about the Dane thing is never knowing what his problem was; that's why it felt unfinished, though I suppose that's realistic.

And I didn't notice the present tense at all!

Tabitha said...

She did an amazing job with present tense, didn't she? That's a hard one to pull off, but she totally did it. It's no wonder she won a Golden Kite award. :)

I agree about not knowing what was wrong with Dane. I also didn't think he'd have let her get the best of him like that. He was clearly seriously disturbed, and I could see him trying to hurt her in other ways. Perhaps by hurting her family. Or even exposing her for what she was, getting her parents thrown in jail - leaving her alone and friendless.

I guess I thought Dane had been set up so well as a power hungry psychopath, yet didn't follow through on his nature. Or maybe it's just me. :)