“My sweat smells like peanut butter.” So opens Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, a moving, hilarious and altogether engaging tale of self-discovery by Wendy Mass. Jeremy and Lizzie are best friends and have been since they were one-year-olds. They have lived through the departure of Lizzie’s mother, who ran off with a Dakota cattle rancher, and the death of Jeremy’s father. They are friends in the almost-like-a-sibling sort of way and not, definitely not, in the I-have-a-secret-crush-on-you way. Their bedrooms share a wall between their apartments and they have been passing notes, getting into spats and bossing each other around for nearly 12 years.
When he is about to turn 13, Jeremy opens a package from his father, deceased five years earlier. Engraved on the box are the words, The meaning of Life: for Jeremy Fink to open on his 13th Birthday. The box has keyholes on four sides and an accompanying letter explains that the keys have been accidentally lost. Intrigued? Well, so are Jeremy and Lizzie. And, as you might imagine, they embark on a search for the mysterious missing keys and for the meaning of life.
Mass manages to create both a mystery and a universal story. And she does it with no hint of moralizing or pretension. The characters have believable quirks: Jeremy collects mutant candy, is fearful of using public transportation, prefers to stay in his house or neighborhood and is obsessed with junk food. Lizzie has a collection of accidentally found playing cards, likes adventure but lacks judgment, is used to taking care of herself and her father, and makes quick decisions. The adults in the story, from the mother and father to Jeremy’s plainspoken Grandma, are blessedly normal as well. They are busy, overextended and challenged by their lives as single parents. And everyone in this story is looking, in his or her own way, for the meaning of life.
Mass stays true to her characters and doesn’t wimp out on the ending. Jeremy does discover the meaning of life, and you will, too. This is an unforgettable book that you will want to give to someone the minute you reluctantly turn the final page.