I first included What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan in my list of Nonfiction Book releases I was looking forward to in Summer 2017. I knew it would be an important read, although there’s something to be said about the fact that a book about suicide that did not involve a beautiful, young, white woman would not have gotten the same level of attention. I actually felt that Maddy’s story was important exactly because she fit so neatly into that image of an ‘ideal’ or privileged life and was still subject to intense pressure, depression, and ultimately the impulse of taking her own life.
This was the kind of book pairing in which one book directly leads you to another. What I mean is that I didn’t read What Made Maddy Run and then decide to find a novel that covered suicide to match it with. Rather, Reconstructing Amelia is mentioned in Kate Fagan’s book about Maddy because Maddy decided to leave a copy of the novel at the top of the parking structure from which she committed suicide. Once I learned that, I felt that reading Reconstructing Amelia might help me understand Maddy better.
If you read both books, you’ll realize that Maddy’s story and Amelia’s don’t fit neatly together and it’s impossible to know exactly why Maddy decided to leave Reconstructing Amelia behind. It’s possible Maddy may have been drawing a parallel between herself and Amelia when it comes to the kinds of social pressure they were subject to through social media, their own expectations, the groups in which they participated and the assumptions of people around them.
What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan
Publication Date: August 1st 2017
Publisher: Little, Brown And Company
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
If you scrolled through the Instagram feed of 19-year-old Maddy Holleran, you would see a perfect life: a freshman at an Ivy League school, recruited for the track team, who was also beautiful, popular, and fiercely intelligent.
But when Maddy began her long-awaited college career, her parents noticed something changed. Previously indefatigable Maddy became withdrawn, and her thoughts centered on how she could change her life. What Made Maddy Run began as a piece that Kate Fagan, a columnist for espnW, wrote about Maddy’s life. What started as a profile of a successful young athlete whose life ended in suicide became so much larger when Fagan started to hear from other college athletes also struggling with mental illness. This is the story of Maddy Holleran’s life, and her struggle with depression, which also reveals the mounting pressures young people, and college athletes in particular, face to be perfect, especially in an age of relentless connectivity and social media saturation.
What I Liked
It’s an important read. In many ways, Maddy Holleran had a very specific set of life circumstances and experiences which may be hard to relate to for many readers. She came from an affluent white family and through hard work but also benefiting from a strong support system was able to land at an Ivy League school with a track scolarship. At the same time that the external parameters of Maddy’s life may not be average, in Fagan’s analysis of the reasons that led Maddy to make the terrible decision to take her life, Fagan discusses challenges and pressures that Maddy faced which I think are universal to the human experience. Some of these include aspects of life today that I’ve struggled with myself, like the intense societal pressures to succeed and continue ‘bettering’ yourself (whatever that means), and the skewed portrayal of what life should look like provided by social media. Through Fagan’s analysis, Maddy’s story is both unique and still feels close and understandable I think to anyone living in society today. It teaches important lessons about looking out for signs of depression and mental illness in the people around us, even subtle signs from people who normally seem to have it all together like Maddy.
It’s personal. At the same time that Fagan connects Maddy’s experience to broader issues and themes, Fagan also includes primary documents from Maddy’s life and contributions from the friends and family who were close to her. In dissecting Maddy’s life up until her fateful decision, Fagan interviews her parents, best friends, teachers and coaches to try to pinpoint how aware they were that there was something that was troubling Maddy in the months and weeks leading up to the January 2014 evening in which she took her life. Through social media posts on instagram and facebook, internet search histories, documents written by Maddy and left on her laptop, and Maddy’s texts with those who care about her, Fagan pieces together a very complex and moving portrait of Maddy’s struggles which honestly was difficult to listen to at times, considering that the outcome is a known and very sad one. It’s odd to realize that Fagan may have actually had access to more information posthumously about Maddy than any of the closest people to Maddy would have had during her life, as none of them were aware of what she was saying to others or doing in private to cope with her feelings of depression and anxiety. Ultimately, the main conclusion of the book is that we’re all intrinsically unknowable to others in our life, at least to some degree.
What I Didn’t Like
The repetitiveness towards the end and audiobook narration. I ended up listening to this book on audiobook, and it was narrated by the author. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the style of narration. Fagan’s delivery was a bit dead-pan and devoid of emotion, and she seemed to take frequent breaks in between random words, where there didn’t seem to be the need for a break. Essentially, her narration was somewhat robotic. I think if I had read the book in physical form, I may have ended up giving it a full 5 stars. In addition to issues with the quality of narration, I also found that some of Fagan’s analysis ended up feeling a bit repetitive. Fagan made sure to cover a really comprehensive amount of information about Maddy’s life, especially in the months between when she started college and when she ultimately passed away. Some of this information, though valuable to the complexity of the retelling of Maddy’s experience, was redundant in terms of which themes and kinds of social pressure it related to, and therefore contributed to some of the repetitiveness of the analytical portions of the book.
Moving, personal portrait of a gifted and special young lady that is effectively tied to larger issues of the social pressures and unrealistic expectations faced by everyone in modern society today.
Reconstructing Amelia by Kimblery McCreight
Publication Date: April 2nd 2013
Publisher: Harper Collins
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Litigation lawyer and harried single mother Kate Baron is stunned when her daughter’s exclusive private school in Park Slope, Brooklyn, calls with disturbing news: her intelligent, high-achieving fifteen-year-old daughter, Amelia, has been caught cheating. Kate can’t believe that Amelia, an ambitious, levelheaded girl who’s never been in trouble would do something like that. But by the time she arrives at Grace Hall, Kate’s faced with far more devastating news. Amelia is dead.
Seemingly unable to cope with what she’d done, a despondent Amelia has jumped from the school’s roof in an act of “spontaneous” suicide. At least that’s the story Grace Hall and the police tell Kate. And overwhelmed as she is by her own guilt and shattered by grief, it is the story that Kate believes until she gets the anonymous text: She didn’t jump. Told in alternating voices, Reconstructing Amelia is a story of secrets and lies, of love and betrayal, of trusted friends and vicious bullies. It’s about how well a parent ever really knows a child and how far one mother will go to vindicate the memory of a daughter whose life she could not save.
What I Liked
The character depth. This isn’t your average thriller where the point of the reading experience is to be surprised by one plot twist after the other, and character development falls to the wayside. Part of what makes this novel so engaging is that McCreight takes the time to piece together the lives and psyche of her two primary characters – Amelia and her mom Kate – chapter by chapter. The reader is introduced pretty fully to who Kate is within the first few chapters of the book, but because Amelia is absent almost from the beginning, her character is brought to life in a dribble of information and discoveries that extend throughout the novel. The narrative alternates between chapters set in the present day, in which Kate is constantly exposed to new information about the daughter she thought she new, interspersed with chapters that flashback to the last weeks and days of Amelia’s life and that give the reader a direct glimpse into Amelia’s words and behavior. I didn’t feel that this pretty frequent change in time frames was confusing, but rather that it added to the substance and suspense of the novel.
The many, well-executed plot twists. Just because Kimberly McCreight does an admirable job developing her characters in what is incredibly a debut novel, that doesn’t mean that this thriller lacks for surprising plot twists. On the contrary, once Amelia’s mother starts to doubt whether Amelia in fact committed suicide (not a spoiler since it’s in the plot teaser), the list of potential suspects or contributors to Amelia’s death is long and constantly changing. There is more than one secret in both Kate’s and Amelia’s lives, and things that they both were not fully honest with each other about. The reader, alongside Amelia’s mom Kate, discovers new information about Amelia’s friendships and experiences at school in every chapter, including revelations that exclude some suspects and bring new ones to the fore. The ending of the novel wasn’t the *gasp* kind of twist, but I still wasn’t expecting it, and I think it fit well overall in the narrative. For a relatively long thriller (at nearly 400 pages), Reconstructing Amelia never felt like it was dragging. It was a definite page turner, with something new to keep you going in every single chapter.
The inclusion of primary artifacts. There are not a lot of clear parallels between Maddy Holleran’s story and that told in Reconstructing Amelia. It’s impossible to know why Maddy decided to leave McCreight’s book symbolically behind, but one aspect of Reconstructing Amelia that does connect to Maddy’s experience might be the way in which McCreight uses social media and other primary artifacts as clues throughout her narrative. From blog posts written about high school life by an anonymous blogger, texts sent between Amelia and her friends, emails downloaded from Amelia’s gmail account and cryptic facebook posts, McCreight peppers her novel with Amelia’s own words and those of the students in her high school who have gone from supposed friends to suspects. It’s interesting to think about the way in which Fagan’s retelling of Maddy Holleran’s life follows some of the same research, digging into the same kinds of leftover communications from Maddy’s last months. It’s possible that by leaving Reconstructing Amelia behind, Maddy wanted to lead those seeking answers about the motivations behind her suicide to look deeper into the various ways in which she’d reached out for help (mostly subtly) to others in texts and emails before taking the ultimate decision.
No need for a section on What I Didn’t Like for this title. With excellent character development, a gripping narrative with twists and turns in every chapter, and ties to important social issues like abuse of social media and teen bullying, this debut thriller has it all.
Have you read What Made Maddy Run or Reconstructing Amelia? What did you think of them? Do you agree with my ratings? Let me know in the comments.
You can read my most recent Book Pairing review of Elizabeth: The Queen by Sally Bedell Smith and The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett here. I compiled links to all the 28 book reviews I posted in Summer 2017 on my blog in this post – check it out for more recommendations.
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