***Note: this review presumes that you've read the book.***
The language and imagery in this book are excellent, and the premise is cool, if somewhat traditional: a young civil-war-era woman is trapped on earth as a ghost, haunting a series of individuals until she figures out her unresolved feelings about the end of her human life. The manner of her hauntings is interesting: she attaches herself in a sort of serially-monogomous way to human hosts (all of whom, luckily for her, are literary types), and can't stray far from them or wish for a different host without risking being sent back to a personal dark, ice-water hell.
But I was disappointed that so much of the story was devoted to the romance, and that our character's hopes and dreams quickly come to revolve around a young man. This woman has studied poetry and plays and novels with her hosts for 130 years, has tried to help them with their work by subtly influencing them, and has gone to university with her latest host and watched him teach English classes. She was a grown woman (29 years old) with a child when she died, she has an attraction to literature, and we're led to believe it's a big part of her life. And yet, in the end she's willing to kill herself over a boy. (No, that's not quite right: she's willing to kill someone else's body over a boy. A body she has gotten pregnant.)
Both Helen and James were in their late twenties when they died, and were serious adult human beings with responsibilities. The whole middle section of the book, with teenage longing and single-minded anticipation of sexual encounters, seemed so out of keeping with who they should have been. More sinful: it was tedious to read. (And while I'm on the subject of Helen being a grown woman: there is no way on earth that an adult who had done years of laundry wouldn't know that hand-washed underwear balled up, wet, inside another article of clothing in a hamper would be discovered by her mother.)
Helen and James's love came on quickly. But more objectionably, it became the only thing Helen cared about. I was intensely disappointed that by the end, when Kathy, the strict, fundamentalist-Christian mother of Jenny's body, is finally breaking free of the confines of her marriage, and finally opening herself to a real relationship with her daughter, Helen suddenly decides to do herself in, because she can never be with James. It was an especially immature decision, given that Helen has no guarantee that dying in a human form will finally release her, and since she now knows that whoever is "Jenny"--whether Helen lives in the body or Jenny's spirit re-inhabits it--has the new possibility of avoiding that religious prison. What sort of caretaker is Helen being of Jenny's body? I had already found it disappointing that after seeing Jenny's plight and understanding why Jenny was forced to "zone out" in her own body, Helen didn't search for Jenny's spirit. As a grown woman and a heretofore generous person, I would have thought she'd feel guilty, knowing that if Jenny could just hold on until she becomes an adult, she'll be in charge of her own life. Wouldn't she want that for Jenny? Hadn't she and James agreed that what they were doing was wrong--that they had to give back the bodies? And hadn't James in fact done that? The "my love is gone, I guess I'll kill myself" plot worked exactly once in literature, and that was because Juliet was actually fifteen, not twenty-nine plus 130 years. (Helen does express a tiny bit of remorse as Jenny's body is falling unconscious, but not enough to not take the last handful of pills.)
Blogger Wendy Darling liked this greyness--this moral ambiguity. I would have liked it too, I think, if it had been a theme that was more consciously developed; if it had maybe taken the place of the boring protestations of love. The exploration of what it means to take someone's life, and how other people (like Mitch) invest in you without knowing you're not the person they love would be fascinating. The juxtaposition of Dan's betrayal of his wife and daughter with Helen's betrayal of these very same people didn't seem to occur to Whitcomb while she was writing it.
The magic of the ghost world was a little vague. It's never clear whether there's a god in charge, and the rules are sort of poetically avoided. There's an oozing blackness in the restroom scene (the first body Helen tries to take over), and also in the bathtub scene at the end. James refers to it, too: when he took over Billy's body, he did it almost altruistically, to save it from that black baddie. What is this blackness? Why doesn't it invade other dying humans, like her beloved hosts? There was also an opacity to the rules of who can talk to whom in the spirit state: James's spirit can talk to Helen when she's a spirit that just left Jenny's dying body, but not anytime earlier when Helen is fully inside Jenny? Where was Jenny's spirit this whole time--watching at a distance? Why was Helen able to motivate Jenny to wake up at the end by urging her in her ear, when she couldn't do this with any of her hosts--is it an exception because she had inhabited her? Where is Helen's husband--in his own private heaven somewhere with people who like him? Why isn't his spirit included in the party--just because they had a loveless marriage? In the end do Billy and Jenny, who are technically strangers, have some sort of spiritual connection because they were inhabited by ghosts who were in love? And finally, is the "quickening" she feels in her belly magic, too? It's not scientific! She says she knows the feeling from her first pregnancy as Helen, but as Jenny she's no more than 5 days pregnant: the blastocyst that is her embryo (maybe 100 cells big) has traveled to her uterus but probably not implanted yet.
Characterization: Jenny's father was an important character, but he was much too two-dimensional. Jenny's mother only began to develop depth at the end, when she was in crisis. Mr. Brown's wife was similarly flat to me; I would have liked her to be worthy of him.
The beginning and the end of this book would have made a lovely short story. When Helen finally allows herself to see a version of her life that ended happily, the imagery is gorgeous. The middle segment of the book is a teen-love story, and wasn't interesting enough for the premise and the excellent prose.