Review: Putting Makeup On Dead People

Putting Makeup On Dead People
Jen Violi
Disney Hyperion
May 2011

When seventeen-year old Donna finds herself back at the funeral home where her father’s funeral was held nearly four years ago, she has a sudden and surprising realization: she likes the funeral home. She gets the funeral home, unlike so many other places and people in her life. Donna hasn’t really moved on from her father’s death and the funeral home touches her in a way that most things in her life don’t. She decides then and there that she wants to be a mortician, but Find her passion is one thing; convincing her still-grieving mother that it’s the right choice is going to be another battle. Meanwhile, Donna’s life is changing in other ways: she befriends Liz, the bold, confident new girl at school, and catches the eye of two different boys, and she begins to embrace the life that comes after her father’s death.

When I was a kid, I used to get in trouble for reading. I’d keep novels in my desk and read them in my lap during class. I’d read while I walked, which leads to about as many embarrassing accidents as you’d expect. I haven’t read with quite that ferocity and focus since high school, though, so I was a little surprised to find myself stumbling from class with my nose to my phone, not willing to wait until I got home to finish Putting Makeup on Dead People. It’s not a particularly plot-driven novel, so it wasn’t that I had to find out what happened next – I just loved the characters and story so much I couldn’t put it down.

Many of the elements in Putting Makeup on Dead People will feel familiar to fans of contemporary realistic fiction. Donna’s grappling with the death of her father and her family’s efforts to move on without him. She’s struggling to figure out what she wants from life and how to manage her relationships with other people (including sexy Tim and less sexy but much sweeter Charlie). These are common themes in coming-of-age novels, but Violi’s writing is so clear and the characters so beautifully developed that the story never feels tired.

Donna’s a great, real character. She’s funny, slightly morbid (what do you expect from a future mortician?), awkward, insecure, stubborn and sensitive. She’s very much in her own head, and she usually feels like she doesn’t quite fit in. There’s a scene where Donna’s Uncle Lou calls her new friend Liz a “spitfire,” and Donna jokes, “Does that mean she’s like a dragon?” to the bemusement of her relatives. It’s a gem of a moment, one that perfectly captures what it feels like to be not-quite getting it – or not quite understood.

I  liked so much about this book. I felt Violi’s affection and respect for her characters, even the less likable ones. There a few things that bother me more, especially in contemporary realism, than characters who are absolutes; pretty much everyone in this book is shades of gray. I loved the subtle, off-beat humor (there’s a priest at the family’s Catholic church named Father Dean Martin, and Donna dryly wonders if “he of the pale skin and and the white blonde hair…became a priest because that’s the closest he could get to being an Italian guy.”) I think the treatment of teen drinking and sex is perfect – neither preachy nor glorifying, just Donna’s personal take on her personal experiences.

There’s nothing earth-shaking about the story in Putting Makeup on Dead People (and I think it’s Violi’s credit that she makes mortuary science seem almost mundane), but everything about it so well done that it’s my first Best Book of 2011. Recommended to most people, especially fans of How to Say Goodbye in Robot, The Sky is Everywhere, and John Green.

Review copy from NetGalley.

2 thoughts on “Review: Putting Makeup On Dead People

  1. Pingback: The trouble with Goodreads « Draw Explosions

  2. Pingback: Reader’s Choice list: How to nominate your favorite title | The Hub

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