See this review on Goodreads.
Tonya Hurley’s Ghostgirl is the story of an unpopular girl, Charlotte Usher, who feels invisible at school. Things don’t improve when she chokes to death on a gummy bear and becomes a ghost who is literally invisible to the living. But being dead isn’t going to stop her from trying to become popular.
As a comic situation, this concept has potential. In execution, the book was, one could say “uneven.”
I’ve made it no secret how I feel about the overworked tropes and clichés of Young Adult literature. Here’s a list of things I never want to see again in a YA book:
– The rich/hot/bitchy teen girl antagonist with her sycophant friends (who are nearly but not quite as hot and bitchy because THERE IS A PECKING ORDER AT THIS SCHOOL) making things tough for our less-popular protagonist.
– The OH-SO-CUTE boy that is almost certainly dating the rich/hot/bitch girl, despite the fact she’s SO EVIL and he’s NICE ON THE INSIDE AND BETTER THAN HER according to…
– Our everygirl protagonist who is a self confessed clumsy nerd with bad hair who is tormented by the rich/hot/bitch while she pines for the OH-SO-CUTE boy.
Enough. Seriously. FFS.
Ghostgirl hits these tropes like a checklist before we’ve passed page FOUR. It runs through them with such box-ticking efficiency that I was sure it was setting this book up as satire. As in, “Here’s all the shit you expect in a YA book, so I’m throwing it all out there before I subvert it into something new.” Unfortunately, it didn’t go that way.
Every character in this book feels like a YA stereotype left to wander through the book on its default settings. The clueless teachers. The “goth girl” with the bad attitude and cool clothes. There’s Petula the hot girl with her two yes-girl sidekicks (Who are both named “Wendy,” which feels like it’s supposed to be a joke but doesn’t quite get there. It’s like an artificial intelligence programmed to write YA saw Heathers and went with it.) And they all sit at their own segregated cafeteria tables exactly like they have in every high-school story in the past thirty years. If it’s good enough for John Hughes, it’s good enough for Ghostgirl.
Once Charlotte dies and becomes a ghost, she must learn the rules of the ghost world, which are not “rules” so much as “vague guidelines that change depending on what the scene calls for or sometimes for no apparent reason.”
There might be uncloaked spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
First of all, there’s a whole class of dead teens attending Charlotte’s high school, because apparently kids die in this town ALL THE TIME. Each ghostly dead kid still sports the disfigurements of his or her death, and most of them have “death names.” There’s Buzzsaw Bud, who cut off his hand in shop class! There’s Piccolo Pam, who swallowed her instrument and now flutes when she speaks! There’s Call-Me Kim, who talked on her cell phone so much that the radiation turned the side of her head into a giant festering sore! So everyone in the ghost class is basically a Garbage Pail Kid.
SIDEBAR ON DEATH NAMES: Through the whole book, Charlotte is one of the only dead kids without a “death name.” It’s explained that they aren’t assigned or anything, they just kind of happen naturally, as nicknames do. Charlotte finally gets hers in the big finale when one of the other ghosts jubilantly shouts, “Way to go, ghostgirl,” to which Charlotte excitedly replies, “Hey, I got a death name!”
Yes, Charlotte’s death name is “Ghostgirl.” Given to her by a ghost. In a room full of ghosts. This is like if you scored the winning goal and your teammate shouted, “Awesome job, humanperson!” and you were like, “Yes! That’s what best defines me! I’m a human person!”
We learn that all of these kids are in “Dead Ed” because they need to resolve their unfinished business in the world of the living before they can pass over into the afterlife. But “interacting with the living in any way is strictly forbidden.” Uh, sure. That all lines up. Because what are the odds someone would have unfinished business to resolve that involves OTHER PEOPLE?
Charlotte is convinced that her unfinished business revolves around going to the big Fall Ball dance with Damen, the OH-SO-CUTE boy who is dating Petula, the antagonist mean girl. And, to be fair, this is believable. Because Charlotte shows zero interests outside of being popular and getting the boy. To the point that she spends her entire summer vacation working on “the hair, the diet, the wardrobe, the grooming, and the styling” she’d need to attract his attention on the first day of school. She admits this is “totally surface stuff,” but doesn’t care. The only way for her to get Damen’s attention is by looking enough like the popular girls that she might have a chance with him. Because yay feminism.
Despite all this, the thing that kept me hanging in there and turning pages was actually something that turned off a lot of other reviewers. Namely, Charlotte gets creepy af. After she realizes that she’s invisible she basically starts stalking Damen, following him around and spying on him. She goes into the boys’ locker room to watch him undress. She sneaks into Damen’s girlfriend’s bedroom to watch the two of them make out and fantasize about it. It’s gross and it’s weird and I actually liked it because it was something that gave Charlotte a spark of unique personality. She’s such a social outcast that she has no idea that this kind of behavior is weird and inappropriate. She’s obsessed, she’s invisible, and she stalks. It was an interesting character choice and I enjoyed it.
Soon Charlotte realizes that the only living person who can see her ghost is Scarlet, Petula’s gothic little sister. Because the YA-writing Artificial Intelligence clearly also saw Beetlejuice. I half expected Scarlet to explain her ability to see ghosts by saying “live people ignore the strange and unusual. I myself am strange and unusual.”
In fact Scarlet is so “goth” that upon her first meeting with Charlotte, Scarlet tells the ghostgirl she doesn’t look dead enough and whips out the cosmetics to give her a “make under.” Which is apparently a thing that can physically happen. Charlotte is invisible and passes through the world of the living like a… you know, ghost. But for some reason Scarlet can put normal make up on her. So… okay. Even if the makeup could somehow stick to a ghostly non-face, Charlotte is still invisible to the living. So wouldn’t they see a mask of eyeliner and lip gloss flying around? Or does makeup become invisible when you put it on a ghost? These questions are never answered, and the whole “invisible ghost” thing just keeps getting more convoluted.
One of the main challenges of the book is that Charlotte needs to communicate with Damen, but can’t because she’s invisible. But over and over again we see ghosts swinging chandeliers and writing on blackboards and at one point (and I’m not kidding) literally taking a shit on the living. How does ghost shit even work? It’s invisible until it squirts out the sphincter? Was any thought put into this at all?
For some reason it never occurs to Charlotte that she could do any number of things to get Damen’s attention despite being invisible. The book goes so far as to show that she somehow has a laptop computer (Ghostly? Real-world but touchable by ghosts? Who knows?), which means that she could communicate with Damon on MySpace. (I know the book was published in 2008, but the reference to the characters stalking each other on MySpace was still lolzworthy.)
I’ll suspend disbelief and say that, in Charlotte’s mind, communicating with Damen is pointless without a body for rubbing on him. And this leads me to the second thing that kept me from giving up on Ghostgirl.
Charlotte has the ability to temporarily possess a willing host. With a little coaxing, Scarlet becomes that host. As soon as she has a living body, Charlotte immediately becomes Damen’s physics tutor, and Damen becomes smitten with her, despite the fact that he believes her to be his girlfriend’s little sister. Soon enough, the real Scarlet (when she’s in possession of her own body), begins to see that Damen likes ALL THE SAME BANDS SHE DOES and immediately begins to fall for him, too.
There was the potential for a big love rectangle with a lot of interesting emotions here. So much conflict to explore! Sister vs sister! Cheerleader vs. goth! Living vs dead! Unfortunately, Petula (Damen’s actual girlfriend) basically says “whatevs” and drops out of the story. Charlotte and Scarlet turn their dueling lust for Damen into a contest that feels like a Disney Channel B-story, and Damen is just like, “Scarlet, you act like two different people but I like you anyway. Also, I seem to have forgotten I have a girlfriend.” Way to throw a bucket of water in the conflict furnace.
And while all this is going on there’s this whole ghost-world subplot that makes so little sense it feels like the editor quit halfway through the book.
You see, the Dead Ed kids all live in this spooky abandoned mansion and apparently have for generations. But today they’re about to lose their home because the house is on the verge of being sold to a living family. It’s never established who owns the house or why they’ve let it sit abandoned and haunted for all this time and now they suddenly need to sell it. Whatever. I can let that slide. This isn’t a story about real estate.
So the ghost kids need to save their home. Interestingly they decide not to go the obvious way and scare off any potential buyers by making the house appear haunted and scary. They know that’ll just end with the place turned into a tourist attraction. So instead they decide to use all their ghostly powers to make the house look broken down and undesirable to keep it unsold and abandoned. Which is an interesting idea.
But in the process of making the house look unlivable, the ghosts inadvertently expose that it’s full of asbestos. The realtor, aghast, declares the house must be condemned and demolished. The stakes are raised. Things look bleak. But, a few chapters later, in the spirit of nothing in this book making any sense…
… the high-school gym of the living is damaged in a flood, forcing the Fall Ball to be canceled unless they can find a new venue. Charlotte and Scarlet hatch an AMAZING PLAN that solves everyone’s problems. The dance can go on as planned if they just move it over to the ghost house. This not only saves the dance for the living kids, but it also saves the house for the dead kids because, as Charlotte explains “If we [ghosts] vacate the house and let the Living kids have their dance here, the authorities will see that it is safe and won’t bulldoze it. It will also show that there can be other purposes for the building.”
So first of all, I guess “the authorities” are expected to say, “Well, those kids had their big dance in ASBESTOS MANOR and nobody got cancer, so I guess everything is fine. I now see that the building could easily be rehabilitated for human use.”
And then, even if that did somehow happen, HAVING LIVING PEOPLE MOVE INTO THE BUILDING IS LITERALLY THE OPPOSITE OF YOUR GOAL YOU DEAD IDIOT.
Of course, presented with the idea of moving the school function to ABANDONED DEATH HOUSE, the faculty advisor of the dance committee says, (actual quote), “Well, someone does owe me a favor downtown… I’m sure we can get an okay from them to use the space for one night.”
SO MUCH WTF. Who is this “downtown” person who owes her a favor? The mysterious owner of the house who suddenly wants to sell? And what kind of a “favor” is it to be like, “Hey, allegedly responsible faculty member adult, you can ABSOLUTELY use my condemned, toxic house, as long as you make sure to fill it with children! WHAT COULD GO WRONG?”
By the time the book reaches its thrilling conclusion the lapses in continuity, plot, and basic coherence grow so big and overlapping that I actually said “What the fuck?” out loud with such volume and frustration that my wife rushed into the room to make sure I was all right. But I wasn’t all right. As I read Ghostgirl my evaluation of it slowly changed from “strange and charming” to “uneven but enjoyable” to “deeply flawed and basically insane.”