book review: A Reunion of Ghosts

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A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell. Harper Perennial| January 26, 2015| 416 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 9780062355898

RATING: ****/5*

“The truth is, we all fell through the cracks, and that’s where we’ve stayed.”

How could I not read a novel about three sisters living in their New York family brownstone—one divorced, one widowed, one never-married—who form a suicide pact. . Dark anything suits me. Dark humor. Absolutely. This isn’t three sisters giving up necessarily but realizing that with them may end the generations-long family curse. History. Using collective first-person, author Judith Claire Mitchell describes each sister and her struggles and upsets with flair, detail and gallows humor. Mitchell writes: “We’re also seven fewer Jews than a minyan make, a trio of fierce believers of all sorts of mysterious forces that we don’t understand, and a triumvirate of feminists who nevertheless describe in relation to relationships: we’re a partnerless, childless, even petless sorority consisting of one divorcee (Lady), one perpetually grieving widow (Vee), and one spinster—that would be Delph.”

It’s a superb exploration of familial guilt and discontentment. There are six suicides in the Alter family including their mother, two aunts, their grandfather and their great-grandmother. WWI and WWII figure prominently in their collective legacy. The novel flips from the present day lives of the three sisters to their ancestors. The greatest influence seems to be great-grandparents Iris and Lenz who live in Germany where both were scientists. Iris became the first woman to earn her PhD at university yet Lenz works and she frustratingly doesn’t as it was the early 20th century. Lenz works on weaponry. Details about their grandparents and parents add to the melancholies. “But we’d avoided growing up. We’d lived our lives like perpetual children, hiding in corners, never knowing what to say, never knowing what to do. If our plan to die was problematic, it was problematic in that it eliminated the possibility of our ever becoming serious, capable women.”

Are the sisters independent spirits or does their ancestral history factor into their current lives? Of course we all inherit genetic dispositions, illness and traits; it’s how we live as our authentic selves in the present that matters. The Alter sisters cannot stop being drawn to the past and slowly it’s revealed why. Mitchell develops their stories and personalities so that we feel we know them quite well. Two out of three graduated college and they all work various professions—Delph works as a bookstore clerk, Vee as an insurance agent and Lady as a dental assistant. While close the sisters keep some secrets from each other. A Reunion of Ghosts mostly speeds along as each sister proves quite the character on her own and as a trio they’re strong and quite amusing. Despite the ending, it’s a delightful read.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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