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Dead Beautiful by Yvonne Woon

September 29, 2010

Before I say anything, here’s the description of Dead Beautiful from Amazon:

A haunting love story about desire, danger, and destiny.
After Renee Winters discovers her parents lying dead in California’s Redwood Forest in what appears to be a strange double murder, her grandfather sends her off to Gottfried Academy in Maine, a remote and mysterious high school dedicated to philosophy, “crude sciences,” and Latin: the Language of the Dead. It’s here she meets Dante, a dark and elusive student to whom she feels inexplicably drawn. As they get to know each other better, Dante can’t seem to control his attraction either, and their desires gradually deepen into a complex and dangerous romance. Dangerous because Dante is hiding a frightening secret. A secret so terrible, it has him fearing for Renee’s life.

Dante’s not the only one with secrets, though. Turns out Gottfried Academy has a few of its own… Like, how come students keep disappearing? Why are the prefect-like Monitors creeping around campus during the night? And what exactly are the Headmistress and Professors really up to? Renee is determined to find out why.

Dead Beautiful is both a compelling romance and thought-provoking read, bringing shocking new meaning to life, death, love, and the nature of the soul.

I bought this book because I saw its beautiful cover one night when I was searching Amazon for books I might like to read. Then I read the description and I thought, “Score!” Romance, snobby private schools and me. It’s a menage-a-trois made in heaven.
Sadly, this is one book that does not live up to its cover. It started out okay. The narrator, Renee, was likable enough. But the book’s description pretty much gives away the plot. In fact, it pretty much tells the first third of the book. Could’ve saved myself a hundred or so pages worth of reading and I’d’ve been spared the winy, complainy, selfish mess that Renee disintegrates into.
At the beginning of the book, Renee has it all. She has a best friend, loving parents and a possible boyfriend. All of this changes when her parents die. Admittedly, a sad, sad event, but I never really felt that Renee’s grief was real. I didn’t share in her angst. It was more like she had broken up with them than that they had died.
Anyway, after her parents’ deaths, Renee’s grandfather shows up as her guardian. Renee doesn’t know her grandfather well because he has been estranged from her parents for a number of years. It’s at this point that Renee begins her transformation from potentially enjoyable character to obnoxious teenager. She sulks and shouts and nobody understands her. Some of this I get. If both of my parents died at the same time, I’d probably act like a brat even if it happened today. But Renee’s brattiness doesn’t read like it comes from the deep well of grief and unhappiness that you would expect. She’s just, well, a brat.
And she only gets worse. On the top of my list of Obnoxious Things Renee Does is that she purposely does poorly in Latin so that the Cute Boy of the story (Dante) will have to continue tutoring her. Blech. That still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I mean, yes, we’ve all done something embarrassing in the hope of getting a guy’s attention. But risking your GPA crosses a line into no self-respect. Or maybe that’s just me.
So, I didn’t like Renee. What about the other characters? Renee’s best friend, Annie, her almost boyfriend, Wes, and her grandfather, who feature so prominently in the first part of the story? Well, they fade into the background. To be fair, Grandpa does make a reappearance later in the novel for some important exposition. But he’s sort of like the hair tie you keep in the bottom of your gym bag: You only pull it out if you have no other options. However. With Annie, Wes and Grandpa out of the way, that leaves the field free for some new characters: roommate Eleanor, geeky boy Nathaniel, and hot, mysterious boy-with-a-secret, Dante. Eleanor and Renee become good friends and joint conspiracy theorists. Nathaniel is merely a prop and never becomes much more than the geeky boy who serves as a nonthreatening male friend who is also a naysayer.
With Eleanor and Nathaniel out of the way, you’ll have guessed who the most important new character is. If you haven’t–wait, seriously, you haven’t? Well, it’s Dante. The introduction of Dante into Dead Beautiful is basically this novel’s downfall. Dante has some suspiciously familiar character traits. He’s a loner. He’s really, really beautiful. He doesn’t talk to anyone–except the heroine. When Dante and Renee are partnered in their “Crude Sciences” lab, I nearly guffawed. That was before the two touched and Dante has an over-the-top negative reaction and stops speaking to Renee for several days. By the time Renee reflected on how cold Dante’s skin is and his remarkable ability to heal instantaneously, I was grimacing in disbelief.
Is any of this sounding familiar? Please tell me you’re following my train of thought.
If you haven’t caught on yet, maybe you’re one of the two people left in America who hasn’t read Twilight. Or seen the movie. I don’t know if the similarities between Dead Beautiful and Twilight are intentional or if the author meant her book as an homage, or the publisher thought that a story so similar–but with just enough differences–would appeal to the audience that spawned a nation-wide teenage obsession. I don’t really care. I’m just disappointed I fell for it. I mean, I didn’t even like Twilight that much the first time.
Let me quickly address the plot. It was predictable. I guessed what Dante’s secret was by process of elimination. I knew he wasn’t a vampire so my options were pretty limited. There are also plenty of hints. I confess I didn’t know all of the details–and you probably won’t unless you read a lot of French philosophy.
As for all the deaths, yeah, I figured out what happened there too. I hope you’re not reading this as a brag, because it’s not. I’d rather be kept guessing until the last page. That’s part of the fun of reading a mystery. That doesn’t mean I don’t crow when I guess right–but where’s the fun in knowing too easily? The best right guess is the one you were never 100% certain of.
I don’t think I’ve ever said this, but this is one cover that deserved a better book.
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