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— and the blood and the metaphors and the drunken night —

— and the blood and the metaphors and the drunken night — published on 1 Comment on — and the blood and the metaphors and the drunken night —

I zipped through Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn, a metaphor-drugged story about Beckett, a young teen girl who grieves the death of her mother. When her father marries the school nurse and Beckett gets her horribly painful period, she suspects sinister and blood-related hunger lurking beneath the surface of her new stepmother. Eventually Beckett determines that her new stepmom is out for blood and that she, Beckett, is the Last Girl of the horror films, who must either confront the monster or become its culminating victim.

As you can see by the reviews on Amazon, this book is either a work of transcendent genius or a piece of unreadable, pretentious fluff, depending on the perspective of the reader. I personally liked it.

I liked getting insight into Beckett’s poetic, racing, unhinged mind. I liked the vivid descriptions of New York City at night that so perfectly captured the shining promise and loneliness of looking in at lighted houses from the outside. I liked the portrayal of grief as an unmooring from reality, and I liked Beckett’s climactic realization that dissociation would never help her, that she had to “go inside” and face the horrors inside her own mind. I liked the sensual descriptions of night and sex and death. I liked her smart-ass joker boyfriend Tobey and his gentleness. I appreciated the overall structure of the plot, in which the first half was unhinging and creeping dread and the second part was Beckett coming back to herself and into her own power. I was very satisfied when Beckett drank the blood and accepted adulthood without the murderous, draining aspects exemplified by her stepmom. I thought that Innocence worked as a feminist vampire fairy tale.

I acknowledge, however, that the book has its flaws. Innocence depends too strongly on similes, at the expense of character development for the secondaries. I think, for example, a greater background on her father and her dead mother would have helped give Beckett’s grief and disorientation more emotional heft. Relatedly, Mendelsohn tries to cram too many allusions into this slight book. Beckett ritualistically calls on Alice [Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland], Dorothy [The Wizard of Oz], Persephone [queen of the Underworld], but the ensuing imagery  and thematic structure of the novel does not bear comparison to any of the stories these characters come from. In fact, Innocence, with its conflict between a hungry replacement mom and a young teen just growing into her sexual partner — not to mention all the temptation, desire, death and blood — reimagines the Snow White story. Of all the tales she could have centered on, Mendelsohn should have made this obvious choice and run with it. Mendelsohn could have strengthened the story with a few references to this fairy tale, instead of a few forced scattershot intrusions from largely irrelevant tales.

I think of this book the way that I think of my favorite movie, Labyrinth. Labyrinth is full of promising elements, strong themes and interesting, dark, poetic, weird sexual strains. Some of them work — i.e., the polymorphously perverse portrayal of Jareth — and some don’t — i.e., the idea that stupid, staring Sarah is an active, maturing heroine. In the same way, Innocence bursts with a mess of fascinating, powerful elements. Some don’t work [e.g., forced allusions to irrelevant tales, development of secondaries], but some do [Beckett’s character arc, Beckett as a sympathetic personality, the characterization of New York City, the condensed and disjointed style]. To compare it to another vampire novel, it’s like Dracula. Some of it’s good; some of it’s dreadful, but it has its moments of inspired originality. Either way, it has staying power; it’s memorable.

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