Review: Dark Companion by Marta Acosta

Dark Companion by Marta Acosta

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:
http://nkjemisin.com/2009/04/ways-to-describe-characters-of-color/

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?

Sigh.

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.

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Sleepless

I couldn’t sleep last night, so I did what I usually do (no shame): flipped through the Romance section Amazon Streaming. I came across Sleepless in Seattle, which my fuzzy memory told me I found charming when I watched it ten, fifteen years ago. We had a winner!

And then. And THEN.

What is even happening in this movie? I will tell you: stalking. Straight-up, creepy, crazy-eyed stalking. What is the excuse? MAGIC.

Do you guys remember this movie? (Spoilers.)

As it opens, Tom Hanks’s wife has just died. He isn’t taking it well, so he moves himself and his adorable, precocious son out to Seattle in the hope of starting a new life. About a year and a half later, Tom Hanks is still not doing well, and his son, Jonah, starts to get worried about him. So the kid does what any self-respecting American has learned to do: puts it all out there on the national airwaves. He calls up a radio therapist, who promptly guilts Tom Hanks into talking about his beloved, dead wife. So far, so good. Jonah is a little reprehensible, and oddly articulate for an 8-year-old, but whatever.

Thousands of women hear Tom Hanks’s siren song and are touched by it, prompting them to write him letters, all of them presumably offering to be Jonah’s new mommy. One of these people is Meg Ryan, who is just as Meg Ryan-ly and adorable as you remember her. She’s also just gotten engaged to Bill Pullman. Let’s not forget that little detail, ok? She is engaged. Early on, the movie tells us that something isn’t right with that match – when Meg Ryan’s mother and father met, they knew right away that they were meant to be because of MAGIC, and Meg Ryan hasn’t felt this with Bill Pullman.

Yet she remains engaged the entire movie. While stalking Tom Hanks and his son.

Meg Ryan uses her job as a journalist to invade Tom Hanks’s privacy and track him down, even hiring a private investigator to take clandestine photos of him. Next, she defrauds the newspaper she works for into paying for a trip out to Seattle, where she goes to Tom Hanks’s house, then watches him and his son playing on the beach while hiding around the corner of a building. That really happens. Charming?

So then, Meg Ryan has suggested in her letter that she would like to meet Tom Hanks and Jonah on top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. Jonah, who has read the letter and fallen in love with Meg Ryan because he knows she is his real mommy to be (because, presumably, of MAGIC), gets his 8-year-old travel agent girlfriend to book him on a secret trip to New York to meet her.

Will Meg Ryan be there to meet this earnest, preternaturally able-to-plan little boy?

It’s cool, Meg Ryan will be there. She’s in New York on a romantic weekend with her fiancée, Bill Pullman. Did I mention she has a fiancée?

Poor Bill Pullman. In New York he’s all, “I notice you’ve been distracted lately, but let’s go shopping for our wedding registry anyway.” And Meg Ryan spends the entire shopping montage talking about how yeah, she had her doubts – lots and lots of doubts about how maybe he kind of sucked and there was no MAGIC – but not to worry, Bill Pullman. She’s totally over that now.

Until, at their romantic dinner, she can see the Empire State Building from the window, and decides to come clean. That’s when we discover that Bill Pullman has a lick of sense. Because after Meg Ryan tells him that she has been emotionally cheating him and also stalking a stranger and his little boy, Bill Pullman is like, “Yeah . . . ok we don’t have to be engaged anymore, that’s cool!” Run, Bill Pullman! You are doing the right thing!

Then Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks and Jonah meet on the top of the Empire State Building, and there is MAGIC.

Good luck, Tom Hanks and Jonah. Hide the pet rabbit.

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Sharon Shinn, The Shape of Desire

shapeofdesirecoverSharon Shinn’s novel The Shape of Desire is a good, old-fashioned romance about a girl who loves a werewolf. Were-moose. Were-bunny?

Maria Devane, a thirtysomething Missouri tech worker with a reasonable support network of friends and family, has been in a committed relationship with exotic (and exotically named) Dante Romano – a shape changer, who turns into any number of non-mythological animals against his will – for going on fifteen years. She has built her life around him, and feels she would die without him; but the relationship is hard on her, as Dante is now human only a few days each month.

Most of the book is a critical look at Maria’s life and the choices she makes as she manages a relationship with a man she hardly sees and won’t admit exists. She has become an expert at lying, she tells us. She hides Dante’s existence from her mother and her close-as-sisters cousins; she doesn’t mention at him at work to her entertaining, gossipy co-workers.

These co-workers include Kathleen, a woman whose story closely parallels Maria’s: her husband is abusive, a fact that she hides (with limited success) from those who know her.

This parallel of Maria’s story with Kathleen’s takes a front seat in The Shape of Desire, overshadowing the rest of the plot (murders have started occurring in the neighborhood, and it looks like an animal – one who can perhaps shift shapes? – is responsible). Maria, the first-person narrator, tells us about that parallel in some detail: she has a hard time judging Kathleen’s choices, because loving unconventionally is a choice she, too, has made; she, too, worries that the man she loves may be a danger to her; she, too, feels that she would die if he were gone forever, that she cannot leave him.

I love that Shinn does this. It’s an anti-Bella Swan move, in a way: she has her main character actually examine the somewhat self-destructive choices she makes in order to prioritize love of someone dangerous. That left me cheering. The strength of this novel is its aggressive, human-adult realism: Maria’s experience feels like your friend’s, your cousin’s, yours – something you’ve heard and struggled with yourself. After all, we ask ourselves, who are we to judge these unconventional relationships? Where do we set the bar?

It’s a valid question.

But The Shape of Desire is, at heart, a romance. We know within a few pages that Maria isn’t going to make the hard choice, isn’t going to leave her potentially lethal lover – after all, she tells us so herself, over and over again. Of course she will make other hard choices aplenty.

The book is a great read, engrossing and emotional and visceral in the best ways. It did leave me wondering what Shinn meant by having her romantic heroine’s storyline parallel so closely that of an abused spouse.

Maybe she meant for us to ask the question.

Published April 2012, Ace Books.

Other reviews worth checking out:

 http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/04/sharon-shinn-the-shape-of-desire

 http://radishreviews.com/2012/09/12/the-shape-of-desire/

http://www.rantingdragon.com/review-of-the-shape-of-desire-shifting-circle-1-by-sharon-shinn/

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