A teenage girl at an exclusive school? Check. Foreboding, fog-shrouded woods around every corner? Check. A handsome, pale-skinned paramour with a macabre appetite? Check. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill, sanguine supernatural love story.
Jane (not Eyre, but pretty close) is a scrappy little thing from the wrong side of the tracks with a past so terrible she subconsciously refuses to remember it. Hard work, determination and motivation spurred by a near palpable rage have rewarded her with admission to a reputable all-girls school, a full scholarship and a dreamy private cottage. And when the headmistress’ incredibly dashing son appears to have a keen interest in plain Jane, it all seems too good to be true. Because it is.
Dark Companion’s author, Marta Acosta, recalls her own schoolgirl days, examines our susceptibility to love’s debilitating powers and recommends some creepy literary and celluloid material.
See our list of the 22 top books for teens out in July.
You’ve published five novels for an adult audience. What prompted you to veer toward YA?
I first wrote the book many years ago as an homage to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and I introduced my character as a 10-year-old. My story is one with a young adult protagonist, rather than one that was written exclusively for young adults. I’m a populist at heart, and my other novels have a readership that ranges from teens to seniors.
Were you a public or private school student, and how did your experience influence your storytelling here?
I went to Catholic grammar school and was taught by Irish nuns. Then I went on to an all-girls high school and finally to Stanford. I was a scholarship kid and keenly aware of social class and economic differences, even if my friends weren’t. I think that’s why most readers respond to the passionate romance in Jane Eyre, but I responded to Jane’s powerlessness and her rage.
I met amazing young women at my schools—intelligent, funny, interesting girls with wide-ranging interests and generous hearts, and they influenced me tremendously. I wanted my female characters to be like those girls. Private schools have a clubby feel, and that’s reflected in my book.
At one point, Jane says, “it’s hard not to believe you deserve the best things in life when you’re told you’re extraordinary all the time.” What are the risks in being overly encouraged?
I have a young pal whose immigrant mother would take out all her bills and display them as she pleaded in tears with her daughter to get better grades. The pal just finished law school. Among the educated liberal class, there’s a common belief that you have to encourage your children with praise. It’s probably better than abusing or ignoring them.
When does practicality become the victim of romance?
Love is a great equalizer, encouraging the brilliant and the not-so-brilliant to behave stupidly. I want to know why smart people do stupid things. Why do leaders of nations risk all for lovers who seem quite bland? Why are we susceptible to amorous delusions when our friends, our rational minds and sometimes court orders tell us that we’re mistaken?
I suppose some people are so cautious that they don’t risk themselves emotionally, which would make for a very dull life. I can’t help but think of John Marcher in Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle,” who waits all his life for his fantastic fate, only to realize to his horror that his fantastic fate is that nothing will ever happen to him.
You’ve introduced each chapter with a quote from texts ranging from "The Castle of Wolfenbach" (1793) to “The Vampyre” (1819). Which classics would you encourage your audience to further explore?
The concept of alternate realities in Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan fascinates me, and I was quite chilled when I read “Wake Not the Dead” by Johann Ludwig Tieck, a story of obsessive love. I recommend exploring classic poetry, too, especially the haunting “The Changeling” by Charlotte Mew and “Der Vampire” by Heinrich August Ossenfelder.
One of Jane’s biggest struggles is retrieving lost memories. Which of your memories do you hold exceptionally dear?
One of my fondest memories is the day I learned to read. I was so excited that I couldn’t wait to get inside the house, and I sat with my mother on the front steps and read to her. Another wonderful memory is my father bringing home a box of books that he’d bought from a second-hand store. I think he’d paid a dollar for whatever they had, books no one else wanted, a mix of fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, manuals. I read them all.
As the only girl in a family of boys, you sought sisterly companionship in books. Who was one of your most trustworthy companions?
I fell in love with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and I loved Laura and her entire family, their affection and their stoicism through hardship. They didn’t have much materially, but they had rich emotional lives. I read Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins a dozen times, and each time I was anxious for brave, lonely Karana. I read C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia repeatedly, wanting to be a part of that magical world.Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Greenpoint Brooklyn, N.Y. When he's not diving headfirst into teen literature, he's writing, drawing (WallaceWest.com), observing (ITakeMyCameraEverywhereIGo.com) or scouring the culinary landscape for gluten-free fare. His beagle mix, Sammy Joe, is supportive of all endeavors.