The last thing Rebecca wants is to spend six months in New Orleans while her father goes overseas on an extended business trip. She's even less enthusiastic when she actually lands in New Orleans, which feels to her even more foreign than China. Her "Aunt" Claudia and Claudia's daughter, Aurelia, live in a ramshackle house crammed with junk. Claudia works as a tarot reader for visiting tourists but never offers to tell Rebecca's fortune; all she does is tell the girl to stay away from sprawling Lafayette Cemetery, the defining feature of their narrative.
Of course, as a daring, self-confident New Yorker, Rebecca takes this as a personal challenge ("She was from New York, after all: A small cemetery in a tiny city like this didn't frighten her") and wastes no time finding a way into the graveyard's imposing iron gates. Lafayette Cemetery is filled with ostentatious above-ground tombs filled with ancestors of the city's most prominent citizens. The daughters of these powerful families attend Rebecca's new school, the exclusive Temple Mead Academy, whose social striations Rebecca finds as difficult to interpret as if she were learning a foreign language. At the top of the heap is Helena Bowman and her best friend, Marianne Sutton; these girls (known as Patricians) and their counterparts from the boys' school also frequent the cemetery after dark, as Rebecca discovers.
Rebecca also finds a mysterious new friend there, a black girl named Lisette, who always seems to disappear as quickly as she appears and who is invisible to nearly everyone. Is it possible that Lisette is one of New Orleans's numerous ghosts? And what is Lisette's connection to the infamous ancient curse that hovers over the Bowman family and threatens Helena? Is Rebecca's ability to see Lisette a blessing…or an omen? As Mardi Gras approaches and Helena is struck by a mysterious illness, the suspense mounts, culminating in a thrilling conclusion that could have implications not only for Rebecca but also for the entire city.
Paula Morris is a native New Zealander who is, like Rebecca, a recent transplant to New Orleans. She includes plenty of evocative details about the city's current, post-Katrina realities as well as its long and sometimes bloody history. Although the novel initially appears to be Gossip Girl NOLA-style, with its focus on the intrigues of privileged young people from old monied families, Morris skillfully builds the supernatural intrigue and suspense to make for a dark, increasingly eerie tale. New Orleans is a character itself, as the story --- particularly its culmination in the darkly celebratory events of Mardi Gras --- could hardly have taken place anywhere but in this historic city.
Not only is RUINED a successful suspense novel, it also touches on important social issues such as race, class, and the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Infused with history, grounded in real-world details, featuring a likable, feisty heroine and plenty of unearthly suspense, RUINED is both a tribute to New Orleans today and a portrait of the turbulent past of this complicated, fascinating city.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 18, 2011