Monday, January 04, 2010

Ruined About As Fresh As Second Hand Smoke

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I've only been to New Orleans once - and it wasn't a sightseeing kind of trip - but Paula Morris has me convinced: it's a creepy place. She sets Ruined, her first YA novel in the city's Garden District. Right next to a cemetery. Graveside settings are always spooky, but this is one is especially so: Most of the bodies in Lafayette Cemetery reside above ground in huge tombs or in vaults set into the cemetery wall. It's also the alleged site of mass burials during the yellow fever epidemic of 1853. If ever there was a place for ghosts to be haunting, this would be it.

Maybe it's no surprise then, that the first real friend Rebecca Brown makes in New Orleans is a ghost. Rebecca's not happy about being dumped in a strange city, attending a snooty private school, and living with an "aunt" she barely knows. All her classmates seem to care about is the upcoming "season," when teenage girls make their "debuts," exclusive "krewes" parade their wealth and power in the streets, and everyone who's anyone receives invites to fancy balls and parties. She misses her dad (who's on an extended business trip in China), longs for her New York apartment, and pines for her friends in the city - since, unlike anyone at her new school, they actually like her. Rebecca's so lonely that she wanders into the one place Aunt Claudia has forbidden her to go - Lafayette Cemetery. There she meets a young black girl named Lisette. It takes her awhile, but eventually Rebecca realizes the reason no one else can see or hear her new friend: Lisette is a ghost.

Rebecca doesn't believe in ghosts. Or voodoo. Or family curses. It has to be the weird New Orleans vibe getting to her, right? Because all these things seem to be alive and well in The Big Easy. One minute she's taking an eerie ghost walk, the next she's actually considering the validity of the Bowman Family curse, and the next she's wondering why her aunt is so insistent that she stay away from handsome, well-mannered Anton Grey. Secrets are swirling in the Garden District, and Rebecca doesn't understand any of them. Why does Aunt Claudia warn her away from the cemetery, the glitzy balls and the descendants of some of the oldest families in New Orleans? Why can't Lisette pass on like other ghosts? What is the Bowman family curse and what does it have to do with Rebecca? Most importantly, will life in Louisiana ever make sense to her?

Ruined combines two of my favorite story elements: mystery and history. Unfortunately, the former is pretty generic and therefore, predictable. The latter, on the other hand, is what makes the book worth reading. Although the historical detail is not woven into the story as seamlessly as it could be, Morris makes her point: The story of New Orleans is, and always will be, a fascinating one. It's a turbulent tale, for sure, one ripe with racial tension, class segregation, and violent natural disasters. Beyond the conflict, of course, is a city of magic and music, one that refuses to be kowtowed by vicious storms or the apathy of outsiders. As Rebecca Brown becomes familiar with the city's biography, she learns that some of its battles - especially those between races and classes - are still being fought. Can she put right the mistakes of the past? Can she save Lisette from an eternity of wandering the cemetery? And what about herself? What do Aunt Claudia's tarot cards say about Rebecca's future? The more she digs into the past, the more disturbing her present becomes. How can she save herself when she's not even sure who she is anymore?

I love the idea of this story. It has all the elements of a perfect novel - I just wish it got them all right. By describing both the city's history and its modern vibe, Morris paints a vivid picture of her adopted city. It's an intriguing setting, even though she insists on populating it with dull, one-dimensional characters who neither progress nor move beyond the confines of their cliches. The plot moves along at a fair clip, but the storyline's about as fresh as secondhand smoke. Ruined is not a bad novel. In fact, it's clean, fast-paced and brimming with all the right elements. It's just that unlike it's setting, the book lacks the originality, the flair, the ju-ju, if you will, to make it stand out from the crowd.

Still, I don't doubt Paul Morris at all: New Orleans is all kinds of creepy. It's also all kinds of fascinating. Pardon me while I phone my travel agent ...

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for suspenseful scenes

To the FTC, with love: Sorry, boys, I bought this one with the Border's gift card I got for Christmas.

2 comments:

  1. I am in the middle of this one. I am actually a little put off by all the references to streets in New Orleans. Although, it does add to the setting nicely. It is a little flat, though. I'm having a hard time getting into it.

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  2. There is a lot of detail about New Orleans. I don't know if it's because streets/where you live is really important to people there or if the author was just trying to make the city come alive, but I agree, it gets tedious. I also think the writing has a general awkwardness to it. I liked the book, though, just not nearly as much as I wanted to. I'll be interested to hear what you think.

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