Dealing with Death: A Review of Jen Violi’s Putting Makeup on Dead People

Dealing with Death

By Eva Langston

In the recent young adult novel Putting Makeup on Dead People, Jen Violi mixes just the right amount of humor and heart to tell her story about Donna, an eighteen-year-old who decides to become a mortician. When Donna attends a classmate’s funeral at the same place where she said said good bye to her father four years ago, she realizes that she doesn’t want to go to the University of Dayton and study Communications. She wants to work at a funeral home.

But what will people think? Her mother, for one, is horrified, and Donna has to choose between her family and her new-found career. There are more choices to be made, too, about friendship, love, and spirituality. But as Donna finds strength in her new identity, she finds ways to deal both with her father’s death and with the loved ones who are still living.

Writing quality fiction for young adults is hard. The author must shine a light on the real teenage experience in a way that shows there’s something deeper hiding behind the angst. At times Violi feels heavy-handed, lifting up the curtain to make sure we fully understand Donna’s realizations about life and death, but most of the time she strikes a perfect balance, giving us an accurate portrayal of the young adult experience that is just transparent enough to let us get a peek at the epiphanies.

Donna’s interactions with her mother, her feelings about boys, her internal struggles and triumphs, they are all very real, and at times quite heartbreaking. Donna’s fights with her mother are pitch-perfect, and Violi did an expert job of stringing Donna’s romantic adventures out over the course of the novel, something that will keep teenage girls reading until the end.

Violi’s writing is clean, clever, and neatly packaged. The novel is the right length, it hits the right notes, it ties everything together at the end. If anything, Violi runs the risk of being too perfect. The story could stand a little messiness, but she saves it from being predictable with humor and some wonderfully eccentric characters. There are many laugh-out-loud moments, but my favorite things are the excerpts from Donna’s death journal. She writes about the funerals she attends and dead people she works on, listing the casket type and postmortem make-up, along with special funeral guests, funeral incidents, and “dumbest thing said while trying to be comforting.” In the case of the basketball-playing classmate from the first chapter, the dumbest thing is, “Now she’ll be dribbling on the best court there is…God’s.”

Putting Makeup on Dead People is one of those high-quality young adult novels that is fun and funny, but also explores real issues. It deals with death in an honest way that is, at times, both humorous and poignant. If I were a grandma, this is the type of book I would buy for my fourteen-year-old granddaughter. It’s good writing, good fun, and a rather wholesome story about a girl who is looking for a way to deal with both life and death.

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