Putting Makeup on Dead People by Jen Violi

When 17-year-old Donna’s father dies after a long bout with cancer, she begins to question who she is and what her purpose is in the world. As she works her way through the grief and loss, she comes to the realization that perhaps where she belongs is in the death business. Despite the vehement opposition of her mother and the outcast she feels from her classmates, she applies to a local mortuary school on the advice of the funeral home director who did her father’s services.

When Donna’s accepted to school and when she takes a position as an intern at the funeral home, she finds herself on the outside of everything she once was and on the outside of every relationship she once held, and she must come to terms with owning her own future.

Putting Makeup on Dead People is a book with a premise unlike any I’d read before — how often do we get a glimpse into the life of a person interested in making death their profession? In teen literature, not often. But I have to be honest: this book did not work for me as a reader on a number of levels.

Donna, who is 17 in the story, never once rang true to me as a 17-year-old. She felt 12; although it is clear her father’s death has really impacted her growth as a person, her voice is far too young and immature for 17. The manner in which she presented herself and the ways in which she protested against her mother came across as extremely childish. While reading it, I let myself be okay with this flaw, though, seeing as sometimes having an older teen character written in this style can great for tween readers. It’s a voice they can relate to while still giving them the impression they’re reading something that may be meant for older readers.

Unfortunately, though, this isn’t a book I’d be comfortable book talking or recommending to tween readers because of another challenge I had: the sex. Donna, despite talking about how she’s not really interested in boys and how she isn’t interested in pursuing a relationship, develops one with a guy about 1/4 of the way through the book. It’s not a relationship that based on romance or shared interests; it’s based entirely upon Tim’s desire to sleep with Donna. He goes as far as to do some pretty graphic things to her in a car when other characters are present, and there is an awkward going-to-have-sex-for-the-first-time scene where Donna finally remembers that she doesn’t really want a boyfriend. But perhaps what’s most worrisome about it is how little agency Donna has in any of this, as well as how little she even seems to be enjoying it. The writing here, too, falters quite a bit and feels clunky and awkward. Comparing a sexual act to painting, to be blunt, made me cringe a little bit and feel uncomfortable as a reader (and adult). I fear teens will feel similarly. I think that the story would have been stronger had no romantic relationships had been incorporated, especially one that felt so one-sided and stilted as this one.

Which brings me to the biggest issue I had with the book, and it’s that Violi tries to take on far too many topics at once, and few are as well fleshed as they could be. Aside from the sex issue, there’s quite a bit going on in terms of religion and belief. Although it is certainly a topic that would come up when discussing death and the ways in which people handle death, Donna is a little all over the board with her beliefs. It seems at the beginning she’s a strong believer in something, but she’s also interested in Wiccan traditions and other spiritual practices she knows her aunt has been outcast from the family for. It’s not a solid enough progression of change or understanding, and for me, this goes back to Donna being an unbelievable 17-year-old.

One of the major themes in the story is family, and for Donna, much of the challenge of her being able to discover her own passions is the roadblock of her mother. Of all the characters, I believe Donna’s mother was the most fully developed — she’s a total wet blanket about anything, and yet, it’s clear that Donna doesn’t understand that her mother has a life of her own to live, too. Mom both lives for her children, hoping to protect and nurture them, but she’s also eager to move on with her own life, too. Mom wants to put the kabash on her daughter going to mortuary school, and the way that Donna and her mother work through this feel authentic and reminiscent of what many teens go through with their parents when it comes to their post-high school plans. The betrayal Donna feels when her mother begins dating a new guy is relatable, despite the fact her reactions feel younger than 17. That’s not to say, though, that the mother was entirely realistic to me, either. At times, the things she said made me cringe, including one time she said that young people shouldn’t have fun because they need their rest. Awkward, strange and not all that believable to read. It feels like in this book as a whole, the challenge the author comes against is developing powerful opportunities for scenes, but it’s in the execution, the dialog, and closure where it falls apart. Potential wasn’t as fully realized as it could have been.

What did work for me in the book was the big lesson that Donna learns: that she can be what she wants to be, and that if she pursues her passions hard enough, things will work out in the end. I had the feeling this lesson would come full circle when the story began, but it was still a good one nonetheless. I love how Violi took a look at a topic that really isn’t much talked about — the funeral business — and made it interesting. Donna’s passion for it is palpable, and as a reader, I was sucked into it. It wasn’t at all morbid, but instead, it was interesting to see the entire process of funeral planning and body preparation. It makes sense to me why this book needed to tackle a wealth of issues, including faith, since that’s something hit upon quite heavily in Donna’s school and internship. Although I wasn’t crazy impressed with the writing, I would have read another 50 or 100 pages of this story to see that fleshed out further.

Putting Makeup on Dead People is a good read for your younger teens who like stories about growing up, finding oneself, and non-traditional routes post-high school. There aren’t enough stories that touch that topic, and this is a worthy entry into that area. Despite the weaknesses in this story, I am eager to see what Violi writes in the future, as she managed to keep me reading and interested in Donna’s final outcome anyway.

Picked up at ALA. Putting Makeup on Dead People will be released May 24.

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  1. says

    I'm interested to see where I fall on this one. I have it for review and should be getting to it soon. I like family drama stories to an extent but worry that the sexy times you mention may be a bit more cringe worthy than I'd like.

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