Francesca Lia Block,
Pretty Dead
(HarperTeen, 2009)

When her twin brother, with whom she shared a magical bond, died of a fever, Charlotte Emerson wanted to die. She wanted to live forever. One wish came true.

Generations later, when her best friend dies of an apparent suicide, Charlotte wishes only for death. But that option, she fears, is no longer open to her.

Pretty Dead is an unusual slant on the "moody young vampire" subgenre that is sweeping the shelves and leaving countless young readers swooning in the aisles. For one thing, Francesca Lia Block is a more accomplished and talented writer than many of her peers in the field, so readers know going in that her prose will have a poetic touch that pulls you in and wraps you in words.

Despite all the trappings of freedom and wealth in her big Los Angeles home, it's certain that Charlotte's life isn't as perfect as people around her believe. She can desire but never love. She can appreciate art, but not create it. And she can exist, but never truly live.

I wonder, if so much of the mythology about us is untrue, what about the myth of the stake through the heart? Is that true? Who would do such a thing for me? Who would ever love me that much?

But Charlotte isn't beset by the usual brooding angst so common to her type; instead, this character feels loneliness to her core, a deep longing for the vigor, passion and creativity that was lost with her mortality. Through a series of flashbacks we meet Charlotte's brother, Charles, as well as her sire, William, who has an uncanny ability to be present for a high number of great tragedies throughout history. We also meet Emily, perhaps the first soul to touch Charlotte's since Charles died, and Jared, Emily's boyfriend, who shares Charlotte's grief when Emily is buried.

I used to paint and draw, play the violin and the piano. I used to sing. That was when I was a living girl. I used to record my thoughts in a journal. I wanted to tell stories about myself and Charles and share them with the world. I wanted to consume the beauty, but then it became too much for me to contain inside my body.

When I was changed, I had no stories I wanted to tell. I stopped for many years. I grew impetuous and fiendish. After I left William, I thought it would get better, but I was even more empty. I no longer even had the dark story of my master, only my own loneliness.

We spend a little time in a high school classroom, but not so much that it dominates the setting. Charlotte is only there because she's bored, not because she wants to be a cheerleader or flirt with boys.

This short, simple novel is lovely in its fragility. There is romance, but that's never its focus. It's wistful, and a little heartbreaking. It's beautiful and sad, steeped in melancholy and, perhaps, just a hint of hope.

It's really quite different, and quite good.

review by
Tom Knapp

12 September 2009

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