Dark Companion by Marta Acosta follows Jane Williams, a foster kid who’s bootstrapped herself into a scholarship to a prestigious girls’ academy. Our daring Cinderella goes from living in a borderline-abusive group home, with a junkie hooker for a best friend, to a world of birch groves and manicured lawns and etiquette and pearls.
Jane quickly meets the two hot sons of the headmistress, one of whom is basically a Greek god in Abercrombie & Fitch. And he seems to like Jane. Or, at least, he likes her blood when she cuts her finger.
This book is really fun. I couldn’t help rooting for Jane, who is not only an engaging, determined rags-to-riches moppet but is also not about to take any bullshit from anyone – and is a scientist.
Acosta gives Jane girlfriends right away, with a minimum of mean-girl cattiness peppered in. That’s a relief in a book about a girl going to an all-girls’ school. The friends are both developed people and entertaining to read.
Dark Companion has a lot of strengths. Probably the most obvious is the way its author uses the engrossing vampire story to talk a lot about socioeconomics and how they influence the choices we make. (See more on this below, but watch out for spoilers.)
One thing I particularly enjoyed about Dark Companion is the way Acosta describes people’s coloring. Her color palette has expanded beyond the typical black, white, pale, or coffee into concrete things that mean more. “She was a sturdy woman,” she writes, “with cropped hair the color of a dead lawn and brownish yellow eyes . . . .” How refreshing. Plus, it reminded me of a fantastic article about how racism plays into writing about human colors that I now cannot find but wish I could – so in lieu of that, check this out, because it’s fabulous:
Verdict: go read it! It’s great.
* SPOILERS AFTER THIS*
Sometimes I get so frustrated with girls in vampire stories, especially the stories set in the present-day U.S. Oh, your love interest stared at the blood from your cut finger? Likes rare meat? Traced your veins and talked to you about the nutrient content of your blood? And you have not even made one single joke about how he’s totally (ha-ha, as if) a VAMPIRE?
On the other hand, Jane is streetwise and science-minded, so she can perhaps be forgiven for missing obvious telltales of the supernatural. She also cuts through the bullshit with people, and, unlike lots of teenagers and people and me personally at her age, doesn’t fall into the trap of reading her own desires or fantasies into other people’s ambiguity. When she gets confused, she makes lists of facts. That rules.
Plus, Jane is something of an antidote to Bella Swan. When she finds out that many of the people she’s come to know and like – including Hot Greek Frat Boy (HGFB, if you will), with whom she’s in obsessive lust – have selected her as their personal human blood bag, she runs the hell away! Hooray!
. . . and then she finds herself back in her old, extremely dangerous neighborhood, crashing on the couch of her junkie hooker friend, and seriously evaluating just how bad it would be if she were a contracted blood-slave to a vampire.
This is 100% legitimate, and it is well worth thinking about – especially by those of us who, like me, are essentially the clueless (but well-intentioned) privileged prep school friends. What compromises to human dignity are worth making in exchange for safety, or the ability to pursue your dreams? Acosta draws a parallel between Jane and her best friend, the drug-addicted, alcoholic prostitute Wilde. What do you do when you feel like you have no options or support? How do those compromises change you?
Significantly, Acosta has chosen to make the vampire blood-slave scholarship program – the “Companion” program – a women-only deal: the only vampires who get Companions are men. I think it’s interesting that she puts patriarchy and male privilege even inside the cult of vampire supremacy and privilege.
Maybe the smartest part about Dark Companion is that the Big Bad isn’t even the vampires – it’s one of their old Companions, a woman the vampires have wronged. And not even intentionally wronged. It’s a clever way to show how power and privilege (and the lack thereof) can twist people and relationships.
Even Jane herself falls prey to the power/privilege vortex. She longs obsessively for HGFB – and a large part of that, nearly all of it, as she eventually is able to admit, is that the acquisition of someone rich, powerful, and hot equals status.
But Jane is a hero, and this is fiction. So not only does she eventually choose not to be HGFB’s blood slave, but she gets to keep her new life – school, clothes, money, privileges – anyway. Finally, a heroine who makes healthy choices! Go Jane! Let’s all go listen to this song now.
There’s a lot to love about this book, and a lot to discuss. Go read it! If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear what you thought.