Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Review of Three Quarters Dead by Richard Peck

I first heard about this book a couple of years ago at an SCBWI Conference where Richard Peck spoke, mentioning his upcoming projects, and I've been looking forward to it ever since. How would one of the greatest craftsmen in the field of children's books handle YA paranormal?

Of course, you could argue that he's already done that with his Blossom Culp books, which I always thought were middle grade, but which are now being called YA, at least in the front matter of this new book. But the Blossom books are also historical fiction, and Three Quarters Dead is about a contemporary teen.

Kerry is a sophomore attached to a popular, powerful trio of senior girls: beautiful Tanya, graceful Natalie, and lively Makenzie. Kerry earnestly assures us that the three of them aren't mean girls. Her reasoning? They talk to her. (Never mind the little zingers they throw in.) They sort of include her. And even though events—along with outside observers—conspire to convince Kerry that she is being used, the heady wine of hanging out with this particular group has her too drunk to admit things aren't so great.

Readers will be quick to see that Tanya, the leader of the pack, is a little obsessed with a particular boy and with destroying the girl she thinks stole him from her. She enlists Kerry's help without giving her any real information, then leaves Kerry hanging when her plans go south. Which is just one example of the small and large clues we get about Tanya's true nature. Another key point in the early chapters is Kerry noticing Tanya's seeming ability to stop time, or rather, to draw it out to suit her purposes.

[SPOILER, THOUGH IT'S IN THE PUBLISHER'S BOOK BLURB AND NONE OF THIS WILL MAKE SENSE IF I DON'T TELL YOU!] Then the unthinkable happens: Tanya, Natalie, and Makenzie are killed when they wrap their car around an apple tree. Here's where Peck's premise gets extra good. Kerry goes into a fugue state, until one day she gets a text message from Tanya telling her to meet the three dead girls in the city at Tanya's Aunt Lily's apartment. Kerry's reaction is relief: "I'd known all along this entire...situation had been too bad to be true."

The haunting of Kerry, which she participates in fervently for pages, is horrifically satisfying. Here's a brief sample, when the four girls dress up in old-fashioned clothes from Aunt Lily's closet to go out on the town. Note the author having fun with macabre puns, the eerie scent of apple blossoms (referring to the tree the car hit), and narrator Kerry's oblivious acceptance of the fact that the dead girls need "major makeup":
There wasn't a mirror on any wall, and that was better. There'd been thousands of us in the mirrored dressing room. Now it was just us four. Taller in our heels, swirlier in our skirts, bigger and bustier in our bras. I was the only one who didn't need major makeup. Just a little something to make my eyes pop. Too much makeup too young is always a dead giveaway, Tanya always said. Too much makeup is always about being the most desperate girl in ninth grade.
Though as Tanya also said, "A little lip gloss wouldn't kill you, Kerry."
There we were in a room that had never changed, the four of us in a dangle of earrings, a wobble of heels, in a cloud of Arpège perfume out of a swag bag. The Arpège fought a little with the lily of the valley, and just under that, apple blossom.
Peck uses the archaeological dig that is Aunt Lily's closet to suggest timelessness, then embroiders these scenes with elderly women hiding from the ghosts in a neighbor's apartment. Of course, the old women represent the way Kerry should be reacting.

The driving force in this book is Kerry's unwillingness to let go—and her problem with being such a follower. You could read the entire haunting as taking place in Kerry's mind if you really wanted to, but I don't think that's what Peck is doing here. Kerry's eagerness to be haunted is just as creepy as the ghosts themselves, and as painful. When Kerry finally snaps out of it, readers will be cheering for her emancipation.

By the way, there's a touch of romance here, but nothing that overwhelms a story that's essentially about girls and their friendships.

Now, as far as suspension of disbelief goes, Tanya's powers work best when they're not examined too closely. There was one point late in the book where I felt like we got a little too much explaining and I found myself doubting Tanya's abilities, but for most of the story, I was completely sold on these events.

Other than that, the only false note qualifies as a quibble: Dear Mr. Peck, Teenage boys today are not called Bob or Sandy. You might get a Rob, an Alex, or a Xander, but that's about it. The youngest Bob I know of is my brother, and he's 49. While Sandy is a 63-year-old plumber. (Fortunately, the key boy in this story is named Spence!)

Quibbles aside, I think the most gorgeous thing about Three Quarters Dead is the tone, Kerry's voice and the way it interacts with pacing to build suspense. Peck has Kerry recount her experiences by looking back on the whole thing. In another book, this might create a sense of drag, but here it suits the genre, evoking a hushed midnight rendering of a ghost story lit only by a sleep-over flashlight. Considering the framing, there's an amazing feeling of suspense as we watch Kerry make a series of mindless mistakes, putting complete trust in someone who doesn't deserve it whether she's alive or dead. Reading Three Quarters Dead feels like watching one of those movies where the girl walks down the long hall of the haunted house, and you tell her on the screen, "Don't open that door!" You know, the door with the monster behind it? But of course she does.

And isn't that what high school is like sometimes, when you can be enthralled by a "friend" who is nothing but trouble, nothing but selfish? Even so, Three Quarters Dead isn't preachy; it's just scary. And—no surprise here!—beautifully well written. It's a slim book, but then, there's never a wasted word in the work of the fantastic Mr. Peck.

If you like this ghost story, try Margaret Mahy's The Tricksters (for older teens).

Note for Worried Parents: Three Quarters Dead is a book for teens, though it's pretty wholesome other than some teen drinking, a scene in a nightclub (mostly dancing), and a little talk about dressing to enhance one's breasts.


Anonymous said...

I LOVE how every review I've seen of this so far mentions Blossom Culp! I hope she develops a massive sudden resurgance in popularity through all these mentionings! She is in fact one of my most FAVORITEST characters EVER and I'm kind of in love with her in a non-sexual way and she was my imaginary friend in middle school! (I would, incidentally, classify her as that mysterious "young YA" that seems to get neglected as not existing, even though it clearly does exist, it just gets argued about more).

But I remember some of Richard Peck's old contemporary YA was definitely creepy, if not outright paranormal. This book (from the description-- haven't read it yet) makes me think of those ol' teen books with just a bit more magic in them.

storyqueen said...

Kate, I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog and look forward to your reviews. I really get a good "feel" for a book after reading your words.

Thank you for taking the time to post!


Kate Coombs said...

Amy--Oh, Blossom Culp is great! What a good choice for a middle school IF.

And I'm clearly going to have to check out some of Richard Peck's older YA titles.

Shelley--I'm so glad you like the blog! (Comments like that really do keep me going on weeks when I think, Why am I doing this?)