See this review on Goodreads.
It’s a Wonderful Death is the story of a seventeen-year-old cheerleader named RJ whose soul is accidentally collected by a Grim Reaper, causing her to drop dead decades before her time. Once in the afterlife, she is given an opportunity to relive certain moments of her less-than-kind life in order to earn the right to be brought back to life. And very special lessons ensue!
I really enjoyed Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, which is basically the Groundhog Day version of this story. So I was hugely disappointed when I had to give up on It’s a Wonderful Death on page 126 of 306. Because I was 40% into the book and had yet to be given a reason to care one bit about whether RJ gets her stupid life back or not.
Stop here if you don’t want spoilers for the first almost-half of the book. Obviously there will be no spoilers for the ending.
It’s a Wonderful Death begins with RJ being accidentally collected (in other words, killed) by a Grim Reaper who touches her instead of his intended mark. This is literally the first thing that happens in the book. Page one, paragraph two. She is dead before we know one single solitary thing about her. We don’t know her name until chapter two. The only glimpse we get into her hopes and dreams is that she’s pissed off about being dead because, as she says, “It’s my senior year and my job is to win homecoming queen next week. And to do that, I need to be alive.”
In the part of the book I got through, Schmitt gave me absolutely no reason to like RJ. At all. I get that this is a story about redemption. RJ starts out as an asshole and eventually (presumably) makes the right life choices and is no longer as asshole. I understand that this is her arc. It’s writ large across the sky in every clumsy stroke of her characterization. That said, the reader needs something to make us root for her during the asshole phase. We need to know that she’s, say, selfish and shallow, but loyal to her friends. Or she’s mean to other people, but she likes animals. She’s an arsonist but she recycles. I don’t know. Something. Throw us a bone here.
But we get nothing. And as if giving us no reason to like her isn’t enough, RJ is actively annoying and seemingly unintelligent. For example, she actually has a strong case as to why she should not be dead. The Grim Reaper who claimed her made a mistake and admitted it, but he is powerless to fix the problem. It’s above his pay grade. So he takes her to the afterlife to sort this out and potentially reverse her death.
When presented with afterlife bureaucrat after bureaucrat, does RJ say, “I’m here because a Grim Reaper accidentally touched me when he meant to touch someone else. It was a mistake that I need help fixing”? No. She inevitably whines something like, “This is so unfair! I’m not even supposed to be here!” like Dante from Clerks. And of course, nobody believes her, because this is like standing in the middle of a prison shouting at the warden, “I’m innocent, let me go! I won’t bother you with the reasons why!”
Eventually, in the waiting room to the afterlife, RJ meets the soul of another dead girl named Sandy. Sandy immediately tells us the tragic story about how she was in love with a great guy and they had great plans for the future until, in the moment he was proposing marriage, they were both hit by an out-of-control car. Sandy died and ended up in the afterlife, but refuses to enter, because her fiancée is tragically still alive in a coma. She will not pass on until he dies and joins her so they can spend eternity together.
And just like that, we suddenly care about Sandy 1000% more than we care about RJ. Sandy has backstory. Sandy has a reason for her actions greater than “I want to be alive because prom.” Sandy is likable. But then we leave Sandy and never see her again for the 40% of the book I read.
We finally get some insight into RJ’s life in chapter five when she is given a laserdisc of the events of her life to review. (Sidebar: I did think it was funny in an absurdist way that in the afterlife they had “local scientists fix the flaws” of the technology to make laserdiscs their media of choice.) While we watch the disc we get to see the following key moments of RJ’s life:
1) RJ is a little kid. Some older girls threaten her best friend and she walks away to let them beat the shit out of her.
2) RJ is a high-school cheerleader and, in order to stay cool with the cheerleaders, calls a friend of hers a fat pig.
3) RJ gives into peer pressure and steals $3000 from a cancer fundraiser to party with her friends.
A few chapters later, after a bunch of angels and whatever put her on trial, her fate is decided: The powers that be will allow RJ to be brought back to life if she can prove she’s a good person by revisiting THREE MOMENTS OF HER LIFE! Oh man! Which three moments will they be? Will they be LITERALLY THE ONLY THREE MOMENTS WE KNOW ABOUT HER LIFE? Wherein each time she was a GIGANTIC ASSHOLE?
This is where my interest in the book completely petered out, because there was absolutely zero dramatic tension in the story.
First of all, RJ is the most passive heroine I’ve ever read. She makes no decisions and takes no actions that further the story. She gets killed by a reaper. She is escorted to the afterlife. She meets Sandy because Sandy sits down and starts talking to her. She watches the laserdisc of her life. She’s ushered here and there around the afterlife. She listens to and is frequently told to shut up by everyone she meets. She is given a second chance at life because somebody else says that’s how it should be. RJ does absolutely nothing in the first 100+ pages but complain while things happen to her.
Secondly, as I mentioned before, we’ve been given no reason to care if RJ comes back to life or not. She has no goal besides “don’t be dead anymore.” There’s no unfinished business for her to attend to on the earthly plane besides one mention of prom. (Sandy does give her a quest, but again, that’s Sandy’s quest. Not RJ’s.)
Third, RJ being brought back to life is supposed to hinge on whether or not she learns her lesson and becomes a better person. But when RJ was watching her death laserdisc, at the end of each past vignette of assholery, she lamented about what a poor life choice it was. Each mistake was followed by her older, wiser self saying, “If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done that.”
OMG WILL SHE LEARN HER LESSON AND SEE SHE WAS AN ASSHOLE BEFORE? I’m guessing yes, probably, seeing as how she apparently already has.
Fourth, when stakes are finally introduced right around the 100 page mark, they’re NOT STAKES FOR RJ. We learn that Death Himself has really gone out on a limb to give RJ this second chance at life, and if she blows it, he’ll lose his job and this other jerk angel will take his place. OMG WHO CARES? So now, in this story that’s ostensibly about a shallow cheerleader learning to be a better person, we’ve upped the stakes by throwing in some otherworldly office politics? Really?
On top of all this, every character in this book just seemed kind of, to put it bluntly, stupid. Here’s a perfect example of the kind of seemingly willful ignorance everyone routinely displays. In chapter seven it is decided by other people where RJ will wait for the next thing to passively happen to her in the afterlife. She can’t wait in Heaven, because she hasn’t been judged, so one of her guardian angels says, “Perhaps a better location would be the entrance to the Gates. Peter can keep an eye on her until everything is arranged.”
RJ asks, “Who’s Peter?”
The angel answers, “Peter. The Apostle. You know, from the New Testament? He hung out with Christ a lot.”
RJ says, “You mean Saint Peter? As in the guy who meets people before they enter Heaven?”
YES RJ WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK? So RJ is familiar with the concept of a Saint Peter who works the Gates of Heaven, but in the middle of a conversation about Heaven she has no idea who “Peter at the Gates ” could possibly be until someone explains it in excruciating detail. What is even happening here?
When they get to the line of souls at the Gates of Heaven, directly across from them is the entrance to a cave with its own line. Can you guess what it is? RJ can’t! She also doesn’t know who Cerberus is, so it’s entirely possible she is just really dumb. I mean, I’ve been out of school for a long time, but back in my day we knew the basic monsters of Greek mythology by the fifth grade. It’s not like we have to pause and explain to make sure the teen readers are on the same page here, right? This is just RJ blatantly not knowing things.
But despite all this, I was determined to stick with It’s a Wonderful Death at least until RJ finally gets sent back to try to right her first wrong. Which (shockingly) was the time young RJ left her best friend Abby to be beat up by bullies. Now this is a real moral quandary. Given the chance to relive this moment and make a different choice, what should she do? Man, I can’t even begin to put together an alternative that… oh wait, how about she NOT walk away and instead confront the bullies so her friend doesn’t get beat up? As it turns out, (SPOILER ALERT) that’s exactly what she does.
Okay, so whatever. It’s an obvious, serviceable solution to the problem. It’s a practice swing. I’ll give the book the benefit of the doubt and believe that fixing the other two problems will be more nuanced and open up opportunities for unexpected consequences. But I’ll never know for sure, because this chapter ended with batshit insanity.
On the day RJ (now) saved Abby from being beat up, Abby’s mother had died. In the original timeline, after RJ abandoned Abby, Abby never spoke to RJ again and that was the end of their relationship. Abby’s dad lost his job and they moved away to live with her grandmother.
But now, with RJ’s decision to not be a complete assbasket, we learn (passively through another character telling us) that after the new events of this day, RJ’s mother “stepped in to arrange for local churches and business leaders to bring meals to [the] house so that [the] husband, a widower with five children, didn’t have to figure out what to make for dinner. She persuaded the mortgage company to give him a three-month grace period on the house payments. She also made sure [the] entire family was given time and space to grieve. And she kicked them in the butt when it was time to pick up the pieces and start moving on.”
Holy hell. Really? So in the original timeline apparently RJ’s mom either had absolutely no idea that her daughter’s best friend’s mother had died, or she said, “Well, since Abby’s not speaking to RJ anymore, fuck her and her whole family.” But because RJ stood up to the bullies, her mother is suddenly a one-woman juggernaut of charity and a social worker superstar. So the takeaway is that by not allowing her friend to get the snot beat out of her, RJ caused her mother to become a better person? And not just slightly better. She went from “Sucks to be you, Abby” to “Abby, I’m basically your new mom.”
Again, we’ve seen another character who barely appears in the story have more (insanely more) character growth in a few paragraphs than RJ has had in a hundred pages. So this is where I called it a day. I’ll never know if RJ ever becomes the person she’s supposed to be (and if she completes the more interesting Sandy’s quest, or if Death Himself loses his 401K) because I just didn’t care enough to keep reading.