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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
Inside A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

Review: Dark Companion

Dark Companiondarkcompanion Review: Dark Companion by Marta Acosta. Tor Teen. 2012. Reviewed from NetGalley.

The Plot: Jane Williams has been in the foster system since she was six. Following the unnecessary death of her best friend, Jane decides she wants more  for her future than what she sees around her and throws herself into studying. It pays off when she is accepted to Birch Grove Academy her junior year.

Jane is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, thrust into a world of privilege. To her surprise, her fellow students are welcoming and accepting. Mrs. Radcliffe, the headmistress of the school, invites Jane to her home and introduces her to her two wildly different sons: scruffy musician Jake and golden haired Lucien.

Something isn’t quite right. The previous scholarship student, Bebe, dropped out of school and hasn’t been in touch with her friends. The school nurse killed herself. Jake says cryptic things; Lucien is sometimes friendly, sometimes not. Is Jane right to worry? Or, as an orphan, does she not have the right context to understand this world of friendships and family?

Jane is right to worry. She’s been brought to Birch Grove for a purpose. The world is even darker than she imagined.

The Good: When I began reading this (boarding school with spooky overtones), I immediately thought of such Lois Duncan classics as Down a Dark Hall and Daughters of Eve. Teen Gothic? Teen Gothic done well? Delicious! I sank into the book with pure pleasure, enjoying Jane discovering the world of Birch Grove, picking up on the dark undertones and whispers of things not being quite right. Jane made friends, had a crush on Lucien, tries to figure out what happened to Bebe, and I just loved every second of it. Who was a real friend? Who was fake? What dark things were going on at Birch Grove? I narrowed my guesses down to –   No, I won’t tell you. That would be cheating. But it’s really hard, because what it turns out to be is so perfect for this book, and so perfectly  part of the book.

Jane is a terrific mix of tough and vulnerable, smart and naive. Here she is on why she is at school: “It was rage that got me to Birch Grove Academy for Girls and out of Hellsdale. I nestled into my bed, knowing that rage would help me survive here, too.” Jane may know the way of the streets, but families are alien territory. What I liked about Jane is how her background impacts her; for example, one of the first thing she does when she settles into her own home (which is a cute little cottage I would love to live in!), is to find a place to hide those things that are important to her. When Mrs. Radcliffe takes her on a shopping trip so that Jane is ready for school, Jane returns half the clothes and pockets the money, putting it in with her secret stash. She’s a foster child who has to hide what is important to her, and who has to be always ready to run.

Also! Before I forget! This book also is funny. One of Jane’s new friends is Mary Violet, and I adored her, because she had such a way of looking at the world — she just cracked me up. It got to the point where just seeing MV’s name appear on the page made me smile. MV does this thing with mangling translations of French words that is just perfect. “She has that je ne sais quoi. That’s French for, “I’m totally clueless.” MV’s wit is quick: “Embrace your flaws. I would if I had any.” Or, “It’s in one of those M months, March or May. Maybe Mebruary or Maugust.”  Jane needs a MV in her life; but hey, we all do.

Jane is at Birch Grove for reasons that have nothing to do with how well she does in chemistry class. She is faced with some interesting choices; choices about trust, but also about herself and what she wants. At one point, I wanted to reach into the pages and shake her and say “what are you doing?! LOOK AT YOUR CHOICES.” I was so frustrated with Jane, but then I remembered who Jane was. A child without parents; without any memory of her dead mother; raised in some of the worst situations possible. OF COURSE she is going to have her own needs, her own dark desires, that those raised in a healthy family would not have. Like I said, Jane was brought to Birch Grove. Part of the reason is not just that she is an orphan with no relatives; it’s that she has the types of needs that can be used or manipulated by others. Who would think that the desire for family, for friends, for belonging, could be twisted and manipulated?

I won’t comment on the romance, except, yes, it involves the two very different brothers. I don’t want to give anything away, sorry!

I was so swept away by the Gothic (aided by wonder epigraphs at the start of each chapter, taken from various early Gothic books), that I missed the most obvious thing in the world. Dark Companion is a spin (a wildly delicious supernatural paranormal spin) on Jane Eyre. Once I realized (and by “realized” I mean, “read a blog post at the author’s website“), I was doubly impressed with Dark Companion.

Other reviews: A Cupcake & A Latte; Talk Supe.

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About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is lizzy.burns@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Eliza says:

    Oh, this sounds perfect. My library has it on order and I’ve added my name to the waiting list.

    I’ve been on a Gothic kick lately Just finished rereading Rebecca and you can’t get more Gothic than that.

    Have you read The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield? Not YA, but it’s a delicious modern day Gothic for the book lover. A mysterious novelist, a biographer who lives above a rare bookstore owned by her father, twins, ghosts, orphans. What more could you want? Beautiful writing, it has that also. The audio version narrated by Bianca Amato and Jill Tanner is fantastic, as would be expected from two such skilled narrators. (There’s an abridged version, which I originally purchased by mistake after reading the book, with Ruthie Henshall and Lynn Redgrave narrating that is also excellent; however it’s abridged so be careful when making your selection if you decide to go the audio route.)

  2. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Eliza, let me know what you think. I haven’t read The Thirteenth Tale yet; sounds like it may be a good vacation pick for me for next month.

  3. Eliza says:

    Will report back. Do pick up The Thirteenth Tale. It will be the perfect vacation read – especially if you’re unlucky in weather and have to spend a day or so inside reading ’cause of rain. Oh, to tempt you further – a crumbling mansion, faithful retainers, topiary, and a misguided governess. If you do read it, please let me know what you think. It’s one of my favorites, though Code Name: Verity is nipping at its heels.

    On an unrelated topic, did you know that Katherine Kellgren (narrator of Ashes) is British? Her American accent in Ashes is so good, I didn’t know until I heard her narrating another book and looked her up.

  4. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Eliza, I had no idea bout Kellgren! And I will report back on THE THIRTEENTH TALE.

  5. Alison says:

    Another great gothic forthcoming is Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan. I read the e-arc and LOVED it. I hope you’ll be reviewing it soon!

  6. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Alison, I have that on my Nook to read over my vacation in August. Can’t wait! I love her other books and can’t wait to see how SRB does gothic.

  7. Eliza says:

    Okay, almost 4 months later and finally I’ve read Dark Companion. I loved Jane. Some of her decisions would have driven me nuts, but given what’s happened to her and her driving need for family, they did make sense. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to give her a ‘get a grip’ talk or shake but I hoped that her toughness and street smarts would help her find a way out of the situation.

    I’m with you in the Mary Violet fan club. Such a great character and just the sort of friend that Jane needs. Given what she’s been through, she needs MV to “funnify” her.

    I also loved that this book is self contained. While there are unanswered questions (but not loose ends), they don’t bother me because it’s unrealistic to have everything wrapped up in a neat bow, but there is room for another book. Do you know if there is one planned? I would like to read more about MV and Jane. Not so much Lucky.

    Shame that the cover is another whitewashing of a main character of color. The book clearly states that Jane has light brown skin and is part Mexican but on the cover looks white. Sigh.

    Overall, enjoyed the book. It was perfect for this rainy fall weekend. Thank you for the recommendation.

  8. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Eliza, yes, exactly about Jane! She’s frustrating, but it makes sense she would make these choices. I haven’t heard about a sequel or companion, but I hope a version of MV shows up in a future book! So glad you liked it!

    I hadn’t particularly noticed the cover, to be honest, maybe because I read it on an ereader? Just noted dark hair, white dress when I included it here.

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