Putting Makeup on Dead People by Jen Violi
Hyperion Book CH
Available May 24, 2011, at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and independent booksellers
(The following is solely my own opinion and does not reflect that of the author or anyone else connected to the publishing or promotion of this book. I received no compensation for this other than a standard galley copy for review.)
Donna Parisi’s father died just as she entered high school, and she’s spent the past four years in something of a fog. She hasn’t been depressed, exactly, at least not enough to make anyone outside her immediate family think that she’s anything but an ordinary teenage girl from suburban Ohio, but she’s just been drifting her way through high school. With no better plans or dreams for her life, she’s about to go to the University of Dayton to study Communications—a school and a major her worried mother picked for her, as she thinks it will help break her out of her funk. Then, while attending the funeral of a classmate who dies suddenly during a basketball game, Donna realizes what she’s being called to do: to be a mortician and help others through the grieving process.
The entire book, save for the epilogue, takes place during Donna’s last semester of senior year and her first semester of mortuary school, and is geared at audiences between twelve and eighteen years old. The coming-of-age aspects of Donna’s life—breaking away from her family, realizing that her parents are only human, dealing with sibling rivalry, falling in love for the first time, losing her virginity, going through her first break-up, sussing out what exactly her own religious beliefs are, deciding what she wants to do with the rest of her life, coming to terms with the deaths of her loved ones and the inevitability of her own death—would be cliché except that they are in fact nearly universal experiences, very well-rendered, and haven’t yet become cliché for the target audience. Donna’s mother in particular is a standout character, a woman who is trying her best to reach her middle daughter but is going about it all wrong.
Ms. Violi also does a standout job of showing a typical middle-class contemporary Catholic family and parish, remarkably free of the long-outdated stereotypes of American Catholics. (There are no mantilla-covered grannies lighting candles and chanting in Latin, though anyone who grew up Catholic in the Midwest in the 1970s and 1980s might find themselves laughing and cringing knowingly at the hippie-dippiness of St. Camillus’ Theatre Group.) The references Ms. Violi makes will put Donna Parisi’s story in a very specific time, place, and culture but I wouldn’t worry about it becoming dated or hard for future generations of kids to relate to—after all, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret is very specifically about a half-Jewish, half-Christian girl in the New Jersey suburbs, circa 1970, and it yet remains a favorite of pubescent girls of all backgrounds four decades later.
Where the story fails—and this is a minor failure—is in its portrayal of the people in the death care industry. They are almost uniformly good, and helpful, and kind to Donna, and while the owners of Brighton Brothers Funeral Home are meant to be Donna’s second family (she moves into their guest room while doing her apprenticeship), they lack the nuance and depth of her biological one.
Overall, I would give this book four-and-a-half out of five stars, and recommend it to any young adult or anyone who enjoys reading young adult fiction. This is Ms. Violi’s debut novel, and I look forward to many more in the years to come.