Have you ever seen those ridiculously cheesy but adorable pictures of Anne Geddes babies?
If you have anything close to a maternal instinct, they're the sort of pictures that make you get misty-eyed, laugh a little, and coo over the baby. This was similar to my reaction to Putting Makeup on Dead People. It's a surprising book about loss, redemption and finding your way back.
Donna Parisi's been floating in a quiet space ever since her father passed away. She goes to school, she pretends to be normal, but she's just drifting through life. Until the day one of her classmates dies, and she finds herself back at the funeral parlor where her dad was waked. Surprisingly, Donna finds herself intrigued by the prospect of working on dead people, and a conversation with the owner of the funeral home guides her path to mortuary school. But finding her career doesn't mean everything is a-ok in Donna's life. The path to recovery and change proves longer and much more arduous.
Donna's got a great voice. It's straightforward, moving, with the most surprising touches of humor. In fact, the main reason this book rates three stars in my book (three and a half, to be exact) is because it manages to infuse humor into a character and a situation that could so easily have descended into unmitigated angst. Putting Makeup looks very clearly at the trauma faced by the people who get left behind when a loved one dies. Donna's reactions are not always healthy or rational, but her eventual message of change and redemption leaves the reader on an optimistic high.
However, this book is far from being perfect. The pacing of the book is slow to begin with, and towards the middle third, slows down almost unbearably. Since this is almost entirely a character-driven novel, with next to no plot to speak of, this is a bad thing. Too many disconnected narratives are left hanging. People that Donna reaches out to and connects with, but who never get a solid fleshed-out characterization. Donna's friendship with Liz is touted as being significant, but while Liz has the potential to be an interesting character, she leaves town too often to actually be of any import in Donna's life, and by the last third of the book, has lost any significance to the plot whatsoever. Similarly, her brother Brendan ends up being a half-and-half sketch, not entirely in the background, but not a fully-realized character either. Donna makes a great effort to reach out to her Aunt Selena, but apart from meeting her a couple of times and receiving sage advice that makes no impression on her, there was absolutely no point to the introduction of that character.
The real movers in this plot are Donna and her mother, and with them, Violi has done a great job. Donna's conflicted feelings about her mother moving on with her life, her unwillingness to let go of the ghost of her father and her inability to rise above the fog of loss and inadequacy surrounding her are all portrayed movingly. I did get a little impatient with Donna's moping, but since it eventually gave her the motivation to change her life, I guess I can live with that.
The love angle in this book was interesting. There's Tim, the wanna-be free spirit and Charlie, the flower child who likes her from a distance, and Donna's conflict between finding true love and settling for the first boy who actually displays interest in her, even if he is a bit of an asshole. I also liked the fact that this book intertwined religious themes in the plotline without getting preachy, although I am not generally a fan of books with religious messages.
All-in-all, Putting Makeup on Dead People was an interesting, if somewhat slow read. I like Violi's style, and I'll definitely be looking out for her other books in the future.
Disclosure: A copy of this ARC was provided to me by the publishers via Net Galley. No external considerations affected this review.