This book came to my attention based on a reader recommendation. I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach this review since I finished the book this weekend and immediately said out loud and on Twitter, “You have got to be fucking kidding me.”
When I look at a small press book, I think about whether I’d buy another book from them, if the book I read is indicative of the quality of the books the press plans to produce in the future. Based upon this book, I am not impressed with the quality of the editing or the press itself. But the story and the concept were enough to keep me reading, and I wanted to finish it because I wanted to know how it ended – I cared enough to want to see the resolution, in other words. But when I got to the ending, I was far from satisfied, and am not impressed with the author or the decision to end the book in this manner.
The opening of the story focuses on the painful death of Frank, whose ghost is attempting to touch or reach his mother in the first scene. The description of Frank’s pain and desperation was enough to make me want to download and read the book.
Plot summary ahoy!
Camilla, better known as “Cam,” returns to her childhood home because of the sudden and somewhat untimely death of her father from a heart attack. When she arrives, a neighbor thrusts a tuna noodle casserole into her hands, and Cam stumbles numbly into her father’s house, confused and grieving. Tuna noodle hits the floor, she leaves the mess on the kitchen tile, and heads upstairs to bed where she turns on the light fixture on the wall above her pillow and POOF! Out pops Frank, the ghost who has haunted that light fixture since his own death several years before.
Cam and Frank grew up together, somewhat. There is some indication that Cam controls Frank’s age, or the age he appears to be. In flashbacks to Cam’s childhood told from Frank’s point of view, he’s startled to see how young he is. Later, Frank portrays his age and appearance from the night he died. Frank can also physically touch Cam, and most objects in the room, but he doesn’t feel anything when he does. He can turn his own light fixture house on and off, thereby controlling his own apparition – but if he tries to get to second base with Cam, he can’t feel a thing.
Cam is fixated on Frank – and asks him to be her first kiss (he refuses, setting of the first of a few periods of time where they don’t speak) and her first sexual experience (same result – with a longer time of not speaking) – but when she returns home to grieve and pack up her father’s house, Frank isn’t the only person she’s ready to bang.
Brad, her former neighbor from across the street, bought his parents’ house when they put it on the market, so he lives in the house he grew up in. Brad has nursed a childhood crush on Cam since high school. When he sees her car and hears the news from tuna noodle neighbor that Cam’s dad died, he decides that it’s time he spoke up about how he feels about her. And when Cam sees the now hot-and-tan-and-sexy-and-dedicated-to-yard-work Brad, who mows many lawns in the neighborhood including her own, she’s equally attracted and ready to act on that attraction faster than Brad can rip the pull cord on his mower. The rest of the story focuses on the tension between Frank and Cam, and Cam and Brad in a somewhat-ghostly and very confusing tangle.
Before I get to my reaction to the story, there were a number of things that distracted the hell out of me that I blame squarely on the editing. Things like repeated phrases and words.
“Her brain clicked into gear when she spotted the familiar blue flowers of a vintage Corning Ware casserole dish. She reached for the door handle and began to unfold herself from the driver’s seat.”
A few lines later:
“A wide strip of masking tape with “KELLY” written in neat block letters stuck to the bottom of the dish. Something in her brain clicked, and she paused to question the wisdom of putting masking tape into a three hundred and fifty degree oven for thirty minutes.”
Is the main character secretly a robot? And does a brain clicking sound like my furnace’s burner ignition?
Another example: if any character at any time is holding a beer, they will scrape or pick at the edge of the label with their thumbnail. Count on it. In fact, drink beer when it happens. It’ll dull the confusion of what happens later. Further, Cam has this nervous habit that’s remarked upon repeatedly: she rubs the edge of her thumbnail over the pad of her index finger, and nearly identical phrases are used to describe it multiple times. It’s distracting and repetitive and so bothersome.
Furthermore, I had a TON of consistency-based questions, both about the world building or mythology of Frank’s haunting, and about Cam’s character. For example, Frank can touch just about anything in Cam’s bedroom (which long ago used to be his bedroom) but he can’t touch the journals and diaries where Cam records details of their conversations ostensibly so she won’t forget anything he’s said. He can’t touch those books as much as he’d like to, and there’s no sufficient explanation for that, or any exploration of why he’s haunting a light fixture to begin with. It’s just an accepted feature of the house: for sale, 3br, 2.1 bath bungalow, lily garden of exceptional quality, EIK, W/D, new roof, ghost in bedroom light fixture. There’s no questioning of WHY Frank is there, or whether Cam or Frank would like him to no longer haunt a wall sconce. She’s very unalarmed by the presence of a ghost on her bed, both as a child or as an adult, and even after long periods of not speaking to him, she’s still trying to jump his ghostly bones.
Sometimes in the course of the story, Cam seems not to be able to recall Frank in the least. She bounces out of bed one morning, chases after hot lawnmowing Brad in her yard, despite trying to get on base with Frank the night before. Yet it’s never explained how that connection of memory works, and the ending makes that even more confusing. I think I’m meant to understand that Cam thinks her interactions with Frank are a dream, but in flashbacks she dresses seductively for him on more than one occasion – indicating that some degree of conscious preparation was involved before she turned on the light. She had to get the sexy nightgown from somewhere, presumably shopping with him in mind – but that’s never explained. She has very emotional scenes with Frank, begging him to kiss her, begging him divest her of her pesky virginity, and yet despite tears and serious feelings of rejection she doesn’t really seem to remember him unless she’s in bed, and possibly horny.
Then comes a scene that had me twitching.
By the time Cam finally convinced Brad to take her upstairs and get funky in her room, Cam has gone back and forth between Brad and Frank trying to get someone to do her already. Really. It’s unappealing, to say the least. But then Cam and Brad get busy on Cam’s bed, and I’m thinking Oh, no, please don’t turn on the light. Oh, no. And of course Brad turns on the light, and POOF! Out pops Frank to watch them do it, providing color commentary and remarking on the entire event while Cam can hear him and see him standing over her while Brad does the deed. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. Ghostly voyeur menage, I have read some. That was more than enough for me.
Then there’s the ending. I try very hard not to reveal the ending of a story, but in this case it is so off the wall that I can’t not talk about it, especially since it affected my overall grade of the book. Hence, hear ye, there be spoilers. Highlight the text if you want to read them.
At the end of the story, Cam has packed up her father’s home for sale, and moved in with Brad across the street. They’re now engaged. Frank has somehow erased himself from Cam’s memory. But on the day of the open house, she walks through the house with a screwdriver, and turns on the light so ghosty Frank can pop out. He does. She tells him she is engaged, then indicates she’s planning to unscrew the light fixture from the wall, saying, “Don’t you want to come with us?” thereby ensuring that Frank can watch them screw for his eternity.
ETA: I owe y’all a big apology. I’m sorry. The spoiler tag was miscued so the above paragraph was visible. I apologize profusely. Totally my error.
There are some moments of clever writing strength within the story. The author attempted to focus on the concept of the heart, with physical and emotional elements present through each character, mirroring their losses in ways that all focus on the human heart. Frank was shot in the heart, and his ghost has a dark hole in his chest that bothers him at varying moments, depending on his sexual or emotional proximity to Cam. Brad also is affected physically and emotionally by his own heart, the details of which are revealed later in the story. Cam is grieving for her father and feels that pain in her own chest. Well, sort of – she’s easily distracted from her grief by her own hornypants, and not in a sex-affirms-life type of way. Cam is easily distracted most of the time. In just about every damn scene, in fact. I can’t figure out if Cam is selfish or just ridiculous with the short term memory of a goldfish.
Ultimately the men in the story are much better developed, and they both deserved better than Cam. There are some clever scenes with Brad and his older sister, and with Brad and Cam nervously talking over one another (though the dialogue tags are overly frequent and make these scenes confusing) on their first dates. There was great potential in the premise and in the opening pages. But by the end, I thought this book was a hot mess. It could have been a much stronger story had there not been distracting repeated words, some truly bizarre moments of bad prose, and inconsistencies in the mythology of the story. But because of the giant WTF of the ending, I was more pissed off than curious, and that ultimately affected my grade of this book.