After a devastating accident and a long coma that left her with amnesia, Jenna Fox sometimes can't remember words. Important words, like hate and identity and time. Jenna, the narrator of Mary Pearson's novel, has no problem relearning the dictionary definitions of these concepts, but she grapples with their deeper meanings. Do some of the people she knows hate her? Who is she if she can't remember her former life and doesn't understand what makes her different from those around her?
It is much easier to come up with sure words to describe The Adoration of Jenna Fox, which is Pearson's fourth book: honest is one word. Questioning is another. It rings truer than any book I've read in a long time and, although it deals with serious ethical matters, it is one of the least moralizing in its discussion of possible resolutions.
Jenna Fox wakes up one morning in California as a seventeen-year-old who "used to be someone" (p. 3)—or so she is told. She can't remember her family's life in Boston or the car accident that sent her, her mother, Claire, and her grandmother, Lily, to the rundown California Cotswold where she's barely allowed outside and isn't supposed to talk to anyone. She wonders at the lack of get-well tokens around her and at the rapid way her body recovers its ability to walk and talk with no treatment Jenna can see. She wonders why her father returns to his biotechnology job in Boston only eight days after Jenna wakes up. She wonders why she now seems to know so many historical facts, when her mother says history was never her strong suit. But her family members will give her only evasive answers to her questions.
Gradually, Jenna reassembles a life of sorts. She starts attending a local charter school, joining a class that one of her classmates calls "Freaks Unlimited" (p. 68). She befriends one classmate, Ethan, with whom she begins working on a volunteer project, and another, Allys, who has several prosthetic limbs as a result of a devastating illness, and who is an outspoken supporter of bioethics.
But even as the "new Jenna," as she sometimes thinks of herself, builds a new life, strange memories of her former life resurface. She recalls almost drowning before the age of two. After accompanying her grandmother to a church, she even has a memory of her baptism. She also remembers the two best friends she had in Boston, Kara and Locke, but she can't remember where they are now, even as she senses that the information is important.
Along with the memories come strange sensations and realizations. Jenna notices that "a small bead of watery blood" (p. 26) appears when she cuts her knee on a rock. She feels as though her hands don't knit together properly: "I slide my steepled fingers, slowly, watching them interlace. Trying to interlace, like a clutched desperate prayer, but again, I feel like the hands I am lacing are not my own, like I have borrowed them from a twelve-fingered monster" (p. 84).
Then, one day, Jenna finds a computer with her name on it, bolted down in a locked closet in her mother's bedroom. Determined to reclaim her computer, Jenna gashes her hand trying to pick it up. When she peers into the deep cut to check whether she'll need stitches, Jenna doesn't see much blood—instead, "the skin lies on a thick layer of blue. Blue gel. Beneath that is the silvery white glimmer of synthetic bone and ligaments. Plastic? Metal composite?" (p. 115) Jenna's hands are artificial, and so, she soon learns, are her legs, her skin. No one expected her to survive the accident, and it was only her father's research with Bio Gel that allowed her to do so. Only ten percent of her body is from the original Jenna Fox, and despite her mother's assertion that it is the "most important ten percent," all Jenna knows is that her existence is essentially illegal according to the bioethics laws of her society.
Other writers might not have continued much longer, letting the book end with all of Jenna's initial questions—why her body and memory are so unusual, why her parents are so secretive and her grandmother so distant—answered. Pearson keeps pushing. Jenna's discovery that her body is 90 percent artificial raises new worries for her. She wonders how she can remain friends with someone like Allys if she can never tell her secret for fear of being reported. Once she remembers the car accident that changed her life, she debates what she owes to the two friends who were with her that night. She wonders whether, if her "memories" are only pieces of data uploaded from a brain scan and just as easily transferred to a new version of Jenna Fox, she really has a soul.
The new Jenna Fox has five hundred billion neurochips, and she uses all of them, it seems, to ponder the dangers and complications of her altered body and life. As perhaps befits someone with amnesia, Jenna sounds both detached and curious in her examinations of her world. This detachment may be what allows the story to remain somehow aware of and sympathetic to all the characters' perspectives. Jenna's parents, in particular, are described with understanding and fairness despite Jenna's fury at some of the decisions they have made.
Like much of the best SF, The Adoration of Jenna Fox posits a different world and then explores many of its facets. As in the best young adult fiction, that exploration is twined with Jenna's struggles to fit into a body and a world that feel inexplicably different. Jenna's questions about ethics and identity keep the book moving even after the key revelation.
But the book's greatest virtue is not the thought-provoking questions it asks or its persistence in pursuing them, but the fact that Jenna is a character worth spending time with. Despite the issues of self and soul that preoccupy her, she never comes across as self-absorbed. In fact, the reader realizes Jenna's humanity long before she resolves her own doubts.