Vivian Vande Velde,
Remembering Raquel
(Harcourt, 2007)

Vivian Vande Velde's latest is not a fantasy, a ghost story, a murder-mystery or a weepy teen tragedy. Not very much happens in it. Most characters appear for a mere handful of pages. The whole thing is well under 200 pages long.

Remembering Raquel shouldn't work -- but it does. Actually, this unsentimental but affecting look at a teenager's death puts the entire Lurlene McDaniel canon to shame.

No one knows quite how 14-year-old Raquel Falcone died. Was she pushed off the curb into the path of an oncoming car? Did she step deliberately into traffic? Or was she simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? A bevy of first-person speakers -- friends, classmates, witnesses and more -- offer a multi-faceted, retrospective account of the incidents of the evening, inextricably intertwined with memories of Raquel.

Readers expecting either answers to the questions surrounding her death or sappy lamentations about How Raquel Touched the Lives of Everyone Who Knew Her will be surprised by the terse, snapshot-like chapters that follow. One classmate comments cynically on "how much dying can do for a girl's popularity." The driver of the vehicle that hit Raquel is haunted by the what-ifs of that night. A young social activist uses Raquel's death to launch a new campaign for street safety. An EMT sees the unsigned do-not-resuscitate order in Raquel's purse, remembers her own mother's death and makes a decision.

Together, this mosaic of perspectives and memories produces a story full of uncertainties, regrets, ironies and gaps. And though she is dead before the book opens, Raquel emerges from these accounts as a fully realized character, intelligent, likable and far from perfect.

Vande Velde's teenagers are smart and sarcastic, angsty but self-aware. A few of the characters are too pointedly ironic to be fully dimensional, but for the most part, the understated emotions and veneer of caustic wit in Remembering Raquel are well-observed and unexpectedly moving.

In its edgy exploration of the implications this quiet, unpopular girl's death has on the people around her, Remembering Raquel channels a bit of John Donne's "no man is an island" philosophy, but it's neither loftily intellectual nor heavy-handedly didactic. Like a lot of teen fiction, you can finish this one in half an hour. Unlike a lot of teen fiction, you'll still remember it a month later.

I've always considered Vivian Vande Velde a fine fantasist. This quirky, experimental foray into "realistic" fiction (whatever that means) proves that she's a fine writer.

review by
Jennifer Mo

10 November 2007

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