Square Fish (MacMillan), 2007.
I picked up this book because The Storied Life of A J Fikry is on my to-read list, and I thought I’d try this one by the same author in the meantime. For some reason, I had no idea Zevin wrote young adult novels – I guess I should have been tipped off by the “teenage” of the title. Regardless, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac was funny and quirky, although definitely targeted to a young adult audience.
Zevin uses the somewhat predictable trope of amnesia as a tool to explore who we really are, especially during the murky and changeable teen years. Sixteen-year-old Naomi Porter falls down a flight of stairs and loses the last four years of her life, causing her to re-learn and re-experience all of the events and relationships she has forged – or destroyed – in those years. She is alienated from her former self as well as her friends and family.
Meanwhile, she discovers that she might not like who she has become: “I wondered if the former Naomi Porter had been, in all likelihood, a complete and total jerk, someone that I probably wouldn’t have even wanted to know” (p. 45). Her self-doubt raises the question of what the "self" really is – is the real Naomi the one looking in at a life she doesn’t recognize, or the jerk who has been living her life? Recovering from amnesia is just as much a re-creation as a rediscovery of the self. Naomi is a blank slate, with no preconceived notions or censorship of her feelings – she is working purely on instinct to remake herself.
Naomi uses literature, and specifically drama, to explore her newly discovered self. Her English class reads Waiting for Godot, an absurdist piece of existentialism in which reality has no objective value. She performs in Hamlet, as Hamlet, which emphasizes the elements of role-playing in discovering the self, as well as her crisis of identity. Her best friend’s mother comments that the general madness and confusion of events is Shakespearean in its misdirection, which is used to add drama to the plot - a fairly accurate summary of Naomi’s adventures.
The dialogue is fun and authentic, drawing the reader into the world of highschool drama. Strong emotions are based on uncertainty, as Naomi learns how easy it is to fall in and out of love as a teenager. She is able to take risks while still being able to rely on the safety net of family and home. I liked that the multiple love stories were sweet yet practical – Naomi does make some bad decisions, but she ultimately takes care of herself. There are too many young adult stories where teens are madly in love and committed for life, which is pretty hard to take seriously. Naomi uses her romantic relationships to learn more about herself, instead of changing herself to make it work.
Instead of worrying about the future, especially a romantic future, highschool should be about experiences, living in the moment, which Naomi-as-amnesiac is able to do without memories to hold her back. Naomi’s father explains it well: “You forget all of it anyway. First, you forget everything you learned…You especially forget everything you didn’t really learn, but just memorized the night before…And eventually, but slowly, oh so slowly, you forget your humiliations – even the ones that seemed indelible just fade away…You forget all of them. Even the [people] you said you loved, and even the ones you actually did. They’re the last to go. And then once you’ve forgotten enough, you love someone else.” (p. 259-260)
I think this novel sends a great message about the importance of knowing yourself before you worry about loving someone else. I would highly recommend this to the teen girl crowd – much more enlightening than the vampire romance epidemic. While difficult to rate, I have to give this three stars for my own preference, although it’s a solid four stars within the young adult genre.