Review of “Nothing But Ghosts” by Beth Kephart

Katie D’Amore, 16, hasn’t yet adjusted to her mother’s sudden death from cancer eight months earlier. Nor has her father, who won’t sleep in their old bedroom, and still sets a place for three each night at dinner. Katie doesn’t even talk to her best friends anymore, because they remind her of the good times, when her mother was alive. She can’t seem to get her mind around what happened:

“You can’t be as alive a Mom was, and then be dead. You can’t be singing so that your voice fills every room in a hand-me-down house, and then not be heard at all. The math doesn’t work.”

Over the summer, Katie takes a job helping in the gardens of the town recluse, Miss Martine, who has not been known to emerge from her house since 1954. Katie and others, including the cute brothers Danny and Owen Santopolo, work for the grounds caretaker Old Olson.

Soon, Katie starts to get curious about Miss Martine. Her own mother vanished involuntarily; why would anyone choose to vanish? She starts to do research at the library, helped by the fabulous fashionista librarian, Ms. McDermott. Danny, to whom Katie is attracted, shows up and helps comb through old local files alongside of Katie.

Katie’s dad Jimmy D’Amore restores paintings in a workshop next to the house, and ironically, he is now working on one that appears to show the Martine estate. Thus Katie, Danny, Ms. McDermott and Jimmy are drawn together in their pursuit of solving the mystery of Miss Martine. Katy has a secret agenda:

“…if I can solve the mystery of Miss Martine, maybe I can also solve the disappearing of my mom. Maybe I can get to the heart of fine lines and survival.”

Against all odds that Katie can calculate, “beautiful” Danny seems attracted to her. He says to her one day, right before he kisses her, “How come you were never in any of my classes? How did I miss out on you?” And Danny gives Katie a kiss she can remember when he leaves for Boston U. in the fall:

“When he bends, I stand tall and we meet in one sweet kiss. Danny Santopolo has kissed plenty of times, I can tell. He makes this one kiss last forever, until it’s me who falls back down to my real height.”

Soon after, Katie opens the locked door of her mother’s bedroom, lies on the bed, and opens the window:

“…I lean out as far as I can into summer – look forward, look down, upon Mom’s garden. I stand here making promises to myself – a daughter’s promises: to live my life with my eyes wide open. To honor exuberance, and color.”

Jimmy D’Amore too, has been coming back to life, thanks to the persistent “help” in his studio from a little neighbor boy Sammy, and to Ms. McDermott. Somehow love is bringing them all back to life. Katie says:

“Maybe love, I think, is the biggest thing there is. … Maybe loving once means some part of you is stuck loving forever – loving and chasing and living with whatever you’re lucky enough to remember.”

Evaluation: This book is full of lovely prose, as the examples above evince, but I’m not sure it seems realistic coming from the voice of a 16-year-old girl. When Katie first sees Danny, for example, she notices his “big head of lemon-colored curls” and describes his smile as “a toothy gleam.” The opening paragraph of the book is a little too poetic and confounded me:

“There are the things that have been and the things that haven’t happened yet. There is the squiggle of a line between, which is the color of caution, the color of the bird that comes to my window every morning, rattling me awake with the hammer of its beak.”

Nevertheless, it’s a touching and uplifting treatment of loss and recovery, and invests the process of mourning with respect and love for the past, and healing and optimism for the future.

Rating: 3/5

Published by HarperTeen, 2009


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16 Responses to Review of “Nothing But Ghosts” by Beth Kephart

  1. Julie P. says:

    I think I enjoyed this one more than you, and I have to admit that I never really thought about whether the prose sounded realistic for a 16 year old. I just got caught up in Beth’s beautiful writing! I thought your assessment was very interesting.

  2. Amanda says:

    I don’t think I really got this one. The writing didn’t seem all that beautiful to me, just kind of mediocre, and there was no life in it.

  3. Kay says:

    I have this book here and need to read it this year. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. It reminded me of why I thought I would like it.

  4. stacybuckeye says:

    I have this one on my wish list, but that first paragraph, while beautiful, seems a but much.

  5. Janel says:

    That first paragraph would have thrown me off too! But the books sounds nice, even if the writing is a little too flowery for a teenager.

  6. Sandy says:

    Doesn’t sound like any 16-year-olds I know! But I know this is a much-loved book in our little niche of blogdom, and would love to read it one day.

  7. Bookjourney says:

    I read this book a while back and enjoyed it. I too caught that some of the dialogue seemed too big for a 16 year old, but fell in love with the rhythm of the book anyway.

    Nice review!

  8. Margot says:

    I have this book on my shelf because so many people have reviewed and loved it. I haven’t started it yet because, I guess, I was saving it for a special occasion. I’m glad to read your more realistic review of the book.

  9. Staci says:

    I really enjoyed this one and I’m glad that you read it!! Loved your eloquent thoughts on this! I never thought about the opening that way!

  10. Jenners says:

    I see what you are saying … the writing seems too beautiful and poetic and mature for a young girl. What a backhanded criticism/compliment.

  11. nymeth says:

    I love your final paragraph! I read this book at the exact right moment – I was in the mood for gorgeous prose and a quiet, gentle book, and this was exactly it.

  12. Good observation about the writing nor realistic for a 16 year old.
    Even still your examples are beautiful and give a glimpse of what the writing was like. Thanks!

  13. I bought a copy of this when Amy was promoting it. I have read books in the past that I’ve enjoyed but thought that the writing style would not be realistic for the age of the narrator. It doesn’t sound like it kept you from enjoying the book as a whole. I need to read this one.

  14. bermudaonion says:

    I think I liked this book more than you did! I loved it and Beth Kephart’s writing.

  15. Pingback: Review: Nothing but Ghosts by Beth Kephart | Flight into Fantasy

  16. I really enjoyed this novel and couldn’t put it down, but as a poet, I tend to love this kind of prose.

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