Atria Books, 2011
Letter Grade: A+
I posted this review a while back to my Facebook, Goodreads, and Amazon, but with the movie out and ripe for its own reviewing, I thought I'd add it here for convenience too.
The basics: Our zombified hero, known as “R” because that’s all he can remember of his name, is going about his post-apocalyptic business, killing what people are left and eating their brains to experience the brief, concentrated flashes of life inside, until he sets eyes on the still-living Julie, while he’s in the middle of eating the brain of her newly dead boyfriend, Perry. Overwhelmed by Perry’s memories of Julie, R decides to keep her alive. The more time he spends with her, the more life seems to return to R’s body and mind. Together, they start to wonder if there might be a way to deal with the whole living/dead situation other than bullets, barricades, and teeth.
The downside: For the sake of finding one, I might as well list the reason that almost kept me from reading the book. Sentient zombies. When it comes to zombies, I’m usually very much of the “dead is dead” school of thought. I’ve been known to roll my eyes quite dramatically at the idea of applying the romantic style of undeadness to a creature that, in my mind, should be a pure action-fodder monster, and I’m still not wild about the romantic version establishing a precedent. It was the movie trailer for this one that won me over in spite of myself with its cute, dark humor, so I picked up the book (as I like to do when an intriguing movie adaptation of something is on the way, before it can arrive and make spoilers unavoidable), not expecting much more than a few crude laughs and maybe an “aw” moment or two. I was not expecting…
The upside: … something breathtakingly beautiful. Sorry, Mr. Romero, Mr. Brooks, I still love you guys, but this is going to be a rave. Warm Bodies is not the light comedic parody it appears to be. Yes, it’s a romance involving a rotting, brain-eating corpse. Yes, it has a kiss restarting a heart and love changing the world and more than its fair share of dream sequences, but I dare you to read the text as it’s written and find anything ridiculous or trite or in any way eye roll-worthy about it. It does have its jokes here and there. One scene in which R (sans the “omeo”) follows Julie (sans the “t”) back to her fortress home and finds her on a balcony (slash sniper’s perch), absurdly soliloquizing out loud to herself about him before revealing the tape journal she’s talking to, had me laughing out loud, but for the most part the story is played absolutely straight, unflinching in both its horrific setting and its romantic idealism.
Through R’s progress from a nearly blank creature of habit and instinct to a fully formed and heroic human being, and through his relationships with Julie and with the remnants of Perry inside him, Warm Bodies delves deeply into what it means to be alive, to be human, to have a self, and it does this without ever winking behind its own back, without apologizing for daring to touch on questions so fundamentally important and, for that reason, so often attempted before. It’s the finesse of Marion’s prose itself that allows him to get away with something so grand and basic and naked. Every image, every metaphor, is vivid and apt and perfect. Everything he describes feels new. I’m not one to pretend I know how to draw that elusive line between the commercial and the literary, but I can say that Warm Bodies is one of the rare zombie books that makes me contemplate the question.