“She was what she was, eternal and terrifying: a woman sprung from the traps of youth and beauty and good health, fueled by disappointment, come too late to wisdom, refusing to exit, powered by rage. A crone. A hag. A ghost.”
Stories from the afterlife are big this year — Natashia Deon’s “Grace,” James Magruder’s “Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall” and, now, “The Next.” Like the 17-year-old murdered slave at the center of “Grace,” Stephanie Gangi’s ghost narrator is a mother who’s having trouble leaving her children behind on Earth. But like Magruder’s grad-school farce, the tale here is high comedy. Or mostly high comedy, as the seriousness of the themes — fidelity and betrayal, mother-daughter relationships, unrightable wrongs — and the three-dimensionality of many, though not all, of the characters make this debut novel a bit of a hybrid.
Gangi’s premise is the notion that those of us who die with unfinished business die “wrong,” doomed to haunt this vale of tears, and tweets, until they find closure.
Joanna DeAngelis has definitely died wrong. She is only in her 50s, struck down by pneumonia that outstrips her cancer, but most egregious as far as she is concerned, she was abandoned during her illness by a man she believed to be her true love, 15-years-younger blogger and Columbia journalism Prof. Ned McGowan, who left her for a fellow internet celebrity.
Together, these indignities thwart the dedicated attempts of her daughters, Anna and Laney, to orchestrate the “Beaches”-style soft-focus exit they had all envisioned.
Hell hath no fury like a woman in a hospital bed in her own bedroom, spending her final hours on Earth scrolling an Instagram feed for images of her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend’s baby bump. Joanna’s rage roots her in death to the Manhattan haunts of her weak, faithless ex, breaking glass and vandalizing his Jimmy Choos from beyond the grave.
Everybody can tell there’s something strange going on, but the only one who knows what it is is Joanna’s beloved poodle, Tom, who sees and hears his mistress loud and clear.
Gangi’s antic imagination and exuberant prose make this story swoop and soar, but it is her characters who give it staying power. The lusty, livid Joanna is the hottest middle-aged/dead woman in fiction in quite some time. The cheaters in the book — not just the bad boyfriend but one of Joanna’s own daughters — are portrayed with depth and insight. On the other hand, the celebrity dermatologist whom Joanna is left for and the relationship Ned has with her are not very believable.
Texts from the dead, OK. Fake, Hollywoodish characters and situations, not OK. This book makes, and breaks, its own rules, but never has less than a good time doing so. As will you.
Marion Winik is the author of “First Comes Love” and “Highs in the Low Fifties.”
By: Stephanie Gangi.
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 312 pages, $26.99.