All right, in honour of supernatural romance/thriller week, I recommend my favourite young adult romance novel: Blood and Chocolate, by Annette Curtis Klause.
Published in 1997, it predates the Twilight phenomenon by a decade, and yet explores many similar themes. I would also further propose that it gets right what Stephanie Meyer tried to later convey in her series, and it only took Curtis-Klause one book!
To set the scene, this story takes place in a semi-rural town in the eastern United States. Werewolves are a separate [sub-]species with their own miniature society and customs, and they live in packs headed by an Alpha couple. Packs are probably akin to something halfway between extended families and churches — not quite as close-knit as families, but more insular than churches. They aren’t exactly looking for converts (these werewolves breed the old-fashioned way) and they have to keep their true existence a secret. Killing humans is forbidden, and viewed in a manner similar to how cannibalism and incest are viewed in modern society: something that might have once been common accepted practice, but is now considered dangerous and unnecessary.
Vivian Gandillon is the seventeen-year-old daughter of the previous Alpha couple, and our main character (our “Bella Swan”, if you like). Her father was killed in a fire a year earlier, when humans discovered the werewolves and set fire to the Gandillons’ house. The pack is leaderless until a ritual choosing of the new pack leader can take place, which only occurs once the pack has safely moved away.
So Vivian is the new girl in town, and naturally has to fit into her new high school. Werewolves can transform at will (although they pretty much have to at the full moon), and they are also considered beautiful by human standards. Naturally, this doesn’t help Vivian fit in, as she is soon seen as “that aloof pretty girl who hangs out with those creepy guys.” The creepy guys are five werewolf boys her age, the leader of which has his eyes decidedly set on mating with Vivian. The pack is so small that there aren’t any werewolf girls Vivian’s age but her.
To complicate matters, a human boy (Aiden) befriends Vivian and they fall in love. He sees her as intriguing and she sees him as an escape. Shenanigans ensue as she tries to hide her true nature from him.
But what stops this story from becoming a predictable forbidden love plot?
1) Gabriel, the newly-chosen pack leader — a handsome twenty-four-year-old werewolf
2) a series of killings that are obviously (to the pack) committed by a rogue werewolf
3) Vivian herself, who rushes to defend her mother in ritual combat and ends up winning the role of Alpha female…and Gabriel’s chosen mate!
In short, Vivian has to confront her insecurities, choose her romantic future, and help solve a murder mystery.
ENDING REVEALED [or else I can’t really discuss the book]
Contrary to all expectations of the genre, Vivian ends up choosing Gabriel and her place as Alpha female within the pack. Earlier in the story, she reveals her true self to Aiden and he freaks out and dumps her, and later tries to kill her when he is convinced that she is the one murdering people. Gabriel, who is patient and understanding, steps in to scare Aiden off and save him from the real murderer. Aiden tries to shoot him with a silver bullet instead, but Vivian takes the bullet instead, realising that the pack needed their leader. The murderer is also executed, and Vivian is saved, but the pack has to move away again.
There is a film version of this book, released around the same time as Twilight was growing popularity, which completely turns this story on its head. The werewolves are evil, and in the end, Vivian and Aiden team up to destroy Gabriel and run away together. Female fans everywhere were outraged. [I didn’t even see the movie in theatres in my anger.] I don’t know if there were any male fans of this book, but I’m sure they would have been ticked off too.
What Blood and Chocolate gets right is a story about a teenager accepting her place in her family and society. She also finds true love — although it might be disturbing to think of a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old with a twenty-four-year-old in modern society, the relationship between Vivian and Gabriel is portrayed realistically and maturely. By contrast, her relationship with Aiden is immature and incomplete. He can’t accept her for what she is, and in this case I can’t blame him. It is impossible for him to understand her, or for her to understand him. Small details make this abundantly clear to the reader throughout the story. I was fourteen when I first read this and even I kept noticing that things didn’t seem to be working out. I was satisfied by the ending.
While this may have been unintentional on the part of the author, I think this book applies well to religion. While religious groups are not different species, there are similarities to how they have their own codes, laws, norms, and rituals. Like Vivian, many young people want to be like their peers and fit in with the world at large, thinking their family and co-religionists to be weird. Escape routes, whether as dramatic as romance with an outsider or not, are sought after. But if you cannot be accepted for who you are, you cannot truly find a home in the outside world. Vivian has to come to terms with her own identity, as do all young people. Only then can they find anything that amounts to true love, romantic or otherwise.