Renee Winters has always been a normal girl, except for her odd ability to find dead things wherever she goes. She hangs out with her friends, has started dating the most popular guy at her California high school, and is excited to finally turn sixteen and get to drive; however, on her sixteenth birthday she finds her parents’ dead bodies in the redwood forest near her hometown, surrounded by coins and with gauze stuffed into their mouths. The police claim the cause of death is simultaneous heart attacks, but Renee believes that something unexplained occurred. Before she gets a chance to investigate, her estranged grandfather whisks her away to the gothic, mysterious Gottfried Academy in Attica Falls, Maine, where a similar death took place on campus the previous year. Renee is sure there’s a link between her parents’ and the former Gottfried student’s deaths, but the Academy thrives on buried secrets and punishes those who try to uncover them. Eerily beautiful fellow student Dante Berlin also distracts the sixteen year old who finds herself drawn to him in a way she can’t explain. The answers to all of Renee’s questions are hidden in the past, and they could change everything she thought she knew about herself and her family.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I snagged a copy of Dead Beautiful by Yvonne Woon from NetGalley. The synopsis intrigued me, but I never thought I would be sucked into the world so thoroughly. I adored Gottfried Academy’s setting, found Renee a satisfying protagonist, and truly invested myself in the mysteries of the plot.
Renee does fall into one common trap of many YA literature heroines: once she meets her love interest, much of the story begins to revolve around him; however, Woon sidesteps turning her protagonist into a stereotype by incorporating Dante fully into Renee’s primary quest, finding out what happened to Benjamin Gallow and Cassandra and, by extension, her parents. While her thoughts and feelings about Dante cloud many of her decisions and actions, I never felt like Renee was overshadowed by her relationship or defined solely by being paired off. She continued to be a good friend to Nathaniel and Eleanor, fascinated by her horticulture class, and dedicated to finding the truth about her parents.
Now, let me rave about Gottfried Academy for a moment. Oh my goodness . . . a gothic, creepy boarding school in a tiny town? SIGN ME UP! Woon’s descriptions of the buildings and grounds of the school made the gothy, little part of my heart dance wildly. The entire campus dates back to the late 1700s, plus there are allegedly catacombs under the school. There’s a salt lake, and a dark forest edges up to the school’s fences. The school dress code requires students to wear outfits that sound straight out of 1940s Europe (Okay, that part sounded a bit dreadful.), and classes are assigned based on each student’s needs and abilities, not selected, to ensure the best classical education. Admittedly, I would have loathed some aspects of the Academy as a high school student, but, as an adult, I envied Renee’s opportunity to be in such an elite, academic environment. Even without the mystery about the school’s past and incidents on the grounds, I longed to experience it, and although the last page has been turned, I want to believe that Gottfried Academy exists somewhere, if I can only find it.
I was also impressed with how Woon blended Rene Descartes’ actual writings into her creation of “The Seventh Meditation” for the story. It took the plot of a young woman struggling with her parents’ deaths to a more cerebral place that examined the nature of life and death. It simultaneously allowed the introduction of paranormal elements into the story without distorting the setting so much that it felt stilted.
Overall, I can’t recommend Dead Beautiful more highly. It was an enjoyable read that blended philosophy, paranormal elements, romance, adventure, and mystery while presenting one of the best YA protagonists I have found in recent books. I hope that the remaining two books in the series are just as satisfying.
5 Creepy Latin Phrases out of 5