In exploring This Is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey, I’m going to do something I normally don’t do. I’m going to start with a very brief summary. I’m playing with the structure of the blog a bit, and I really think this post lends itself to lists. So you’ll see a lot of them this week.
It’s 1998, and Jess is a junior in high school. She’s dealing with normal high school things:
- A crush on her best friend, Tyler
- An unwanted date to the Spring Formal
- Trying to get out of the house even though she’s grounded
But little things are happening that make Jess question her world–and really it wouldn’t be YA if the character weren’t questioning her world–
- Waking up and hearing the words “Forage” and “Power” being chanted, which doesn’t make any sense to her and conveniently no one else has heard it
- Seeing a flat, rectangular device with shiny black glass and an apple on it fall out of her friend’s backpack
- Noticing that there’s a new dog in the house–one that looks an awful lot like her dog, but isn’t and of course her family doesn’t see the differences (like the missing stitches from her dog’s recent encounter at the dog park)
- Commenting on the mysterious flu that has half the town and half her school out sick
The reader and Jess quickly start to wonder what’s really happening here? The only difference is that the reader starts to see what Jess can’t. Jess isn’t living in a quaint small town. She’s living in a reality show. The only problem is that the reader doesn’t know who in the novel is in on the show, what year it really is, if and how Jess will find out about the show, and what might happen if Jess does find out about it.
And it is this completely implausible scenario that makes this book as compelling a read as any reality show you might watch–even if that reality show is only The Great British Baking Show.
I literally read this book in one sitting. I could not put it down. So let’s explore what made this a one-sitting read:
- Nostalgia: Despite not being a teen in the 1990s, I was a teacher of teens during this time. The pop culture references from tv shows and references to the TGIF television lineup to music and lots of boy bands to fashion and the Delia’s catalog to Lisa Frank stickers (and can I just say that the Lisa Frank inspired end pages were charming) make this book a lot of fun. A lot of this nostalgia was the fact that it harkened back to a simpler time before screens were everywhere. A time when we only worried about our President having an affair with an intern (how quaint that seems compared to pandemics and insurrection).
- POV: The first person narration makes it so you only know what Jess knows. Sort of. The thing is you have all your 21st Century knowledge. So when the iPhone falls out of the backpack you know what it is. You understand the subtle nods given to our world when certain pop culture references are made. You’re in on the joke. But you’re not.
- Identity/Coming of Age: Let’s face it, we all were made to read Catcher in the Rye in high school (or at least those of us Gen Xers were) because our teachers thought we were the “right age” to identify with Holden’s coming of age story and the formation of his identity. And, yes, we were. But Holden’s kind of a jerk. He’s not easy to like. He’s not easy to identify with. And Jess’s coming of age story is NOT Holden’s. Yes, Jess is struggling to figure out how she fits into her world. She’s part of a friend group of three. And anyone who’s been part of three best friends knows that someone is always on the outside. So it’s only fitting that Jess feels outside this group. And then it makes total sense why she feels that way. She is on the outside. She’s also struggling with some serious family issues. Her sister has a rare illness and is dying. She’s trying to figure out her place in the family. The first part of the novel deals with all the normal fitting in things that teen readers look for. Then it turns the identity formation/coming of age trope on its head. Everything Jess thinks she knows about her world from her friends to her family to her sister’s illness is suddenly and without warning revealed to her to be false. So who is she? Who is she when the show stops? How does she make sense of this world? This novel explores how we look at the ways we figure out who we are.
Ultimately This is Not the Jess Show was just a wild ride. It was a lot of fun. I loved being in on the joke and not. I loved not knowing exactly how they were going to get out of the situations they were in. And I loved that the novel didn’t talk down to the readers. This was just the perfect one-sitting read.