Reluctant Immortals opens with an opening line that is just … *chefs kiss*; “It’s almost sundown in Los Angeles, and Dracula’s ashes won’t shut up.”
The book is set in 1967 California, splitting most of the action between Los Angeles and the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, with a few spots visited in between. It is the Summer of Love and also yet just another summer for Lucy Westnera and Bertha (Bea) Mason, who are the immortals of the book title. Lucy comes from the pages of Dracula; she becomes a victim of the vampire after he reaches English soil, while Bea is the alleged madwoman and the first wife of Mr. Rochester, locked in the attic in Jane Eyre. The women are living their unlives when they get hit by some unpleasant blasts from the past in the form of their (very toxic) exes making a reappearance.
Beyond that truly amazing opening line, the book has a couple of other good zingers, the ones I recall are mostly at the expense of Dracula, which makes sense. Dracula is Lucy’s monster to face down. While the book is about both of the women, the focus is on Lucy. The narrative is from a first-person point of view, and it is through Lucy’s eyes and Lucy’s voice that the story is seen and told. Having more familiarity with Lucy’s source material (I’ve read Dracula and have seen so many adaptations), I didn’t mind this. However, beyond knowing that Rochester locked up his wife in the attic and ended up with the governess, I wasn’t familiar with the plot of Jane Eyre. I don’t necessarily feel that this diminished my enjoyment of the book (I would give it a solid four stars), but at times I did wonder if I’d have felt a touch more sympathy or interest in Bea’s story arc if I had read her original novel.
Bea is also the source of one of my main complaints about the book. While the source of her immortality (and Rochester) is explained, I just didn’t get it. Maybe it’s the lack of knowledge of the source material, or perhaps it’s because when you mention ‘vampire’ in a book or movie, I know the rules might vary a bit, but I have the framework. Sunlight is probably not good, teeth are sharp, blood is needed, and stakes through the heart are a bad thing. For whatever reason, I didn’t really ‘get’ what Bea’s immortality deal was or connect with the character all that much.
I enjoyed the way this book was very much about the women rewriting their narratives. Mention is made of things that their stories got wrong, and the men in this story are not brooding antiheroes. They are monsters. Again, I’m not sure how monstrous Rochester was in the initial text, but he is not presented in a brooding or attractive light here. Personally, never having been a fan of Dracula, I was all aboard; this is a monster who kills people for food and doesn’t give a crap. And to be clear, both men are monsters. We see Lucy and Bea (again, more so Lucy) struggle, but the men are revelling in what they can do. They have gained power and are choosing to harm others with it. They can easily replace the women in their lives whom they have hurt because the women don’t matter to them. But the women, to be clear, matter, and the story makes that clear.
The story is dark as it deals with coercion, past spousal abuse, death, vampirism, and locking people in attics (I’m sorry, I am hung up on how this must have played out in Jane Eyre), but it is set in a time and place that screams ‘sunshine, tie-dye, fringe vests, and bell-bottoms’ to my brain. It’s a juxtaposition, but it works. The Summer of Love might be going on, but the book is also aware that the Vietnam War is happening, and many of the young adults who have flocked to California are in search of something — be that immortality or writing their own stories.
To keep this spoiler-free, I will say some other familiar (or not so familiar if you haven’t read the book) faces show up as Lucy and Bea reconnect with their pasts. The characters I knew made me go ‘yay,’ and the ones I didn’t still add to the story. The biggest weakness character-wise for me was some of the supporting humans; they had a role to play in the plot, but my interest in them (despite Lucy’s intense interest in one of them) was next to zero.
So overall, four stars out of five.