This story is about a pretty typical teenage boy. Seventeen-year old Marvin resents his stepfather, struggles to communicate with his mother, cannot hold a coherent conversation with a female, and is indefatigably determined to do exactly the opposite of his father.
Pretty standard, right?
Until it isn’t.
Marvin has the psychic ability to see ghosts, a gift (or…curse rather) he inherits from his deceased father whose amicable specter is the very first the reader is introduced to. Marvin disparages his ability and chooses to ignore every spirit who needs him to help them take care of unfinished business. Now, this might sound M. Night Shyamalan-y, but unlike cute and terrified “I-see-dead-people” Cole, Marvin is not only unafraid of ghosts, but he is just downright mean to them. He actually puts his headphones in his ears so they don’t bother him.
But then he meets Stella McCartney, a teenage ghost-girl, hanging out in the cemetery behind his house. Obviously, he decides to help her. The poor girl doesn’t realize she’s dead, remember anything further back than a few days, or know her actual name—she gets Stella from the label sewn into her pants. That touches his hardened heart, and, more likely, he realizes his only shot at ever having a girlfriend is if he pursues a dead one. It’s in his effort to help Stella retrieve her memory and cross into the light that the real adventure begins. Stella’s only hope at peace requires the two to face the world of the dead in all of its mysterious, horrifying, and supernatural glory, and the risks are great; in this tale, some outcomes are worse than death.
Marvin is one of those protagonists you eventually grow to tolerate because the majority of the story is about him. To be fair, his misanthropic disposition isn’t baseless; he’s had a rough life. He’s a teenager whose father recently died, whose mother remarried, and whose inheritance is the ability to see dead people. His backstory and eventual willingness to help Stella, even if that change of heart is selfishly motivated, is what kept me rooting for him and what earned him my approval by the novel’s end. But I’m not Edwards’ real audience; this is her first young adult novel, and I think those readers will empathize with Marvin’s fierce desire to find his own way.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this book is the way it approaches death. Edwards takes the road less traveled here, and instead of offering her readers the world of decomposition and immutable rage expected from a ghost story, she gives us a world of people—people who happen to be dead. For the most part, the ghosts in the story aren’t demonized. They’re regular folks with regrets and fears, but also with dreams and the capacity for love and selflessness. And that picture of the afterlife makes death a little less scary. Given that death is something we will all have to face in more than one way, that’s a pretty profound message to offer.
Edwards deals with the idea of “moving on” in a way that is tough and important to read. This is especially true for teenagers, a population that has lived long enough to experience loss and whose members are arriving at an age when grandparents aren’t quite as spry as they once were, and the inevitability of death is as tangible as aging flesh. That audience will, along with Marvin, learn that while some things are worth risking everything for, others must be let go.
There are a few things about this book that weren’t so impressive. First, the dialogue is cheesy, particularly the exchanges between Stella and Marvin. Though it’s clear that Edwards intends for their interactions to be awkward, that trait is too forced to be believable. At the same time, she is working with two teenagers (one of whom is dead and the other, a psychic-medium who has never had a girlfriend) who are attracted to each other. There’s a chance I’m being a little too critical.
The real disappointment for me is Edwards’ choice to play it safe when it comes to plot development. I won’t give anything specific away, but she drops some really dark, heavy, fascinating characters and ideas into the story, but never brings Marvin face to face with them in the way that I had hoped she would.
Edwards has created characters and situations that her target audience will connect with, but the strained dialogue and choice to avoid risky but compelling plot twists mitigate the novel’s impact.
Edwards is currently editing her newest book, The Iron City, a story about a dragon slayer.
Reviewed by Dianne Benjamin