This is Biller’s debut novel and I assure you, when the inevitable sequels come out focusing on other members of Moore household, I will be injecting it straight into my veins.
The Plot: A rich widow of an abusive POS in late 19th century New York tries to reinvent herself by buying a creepy old house, renovating it, and writing a book about it. Only the team she’s hired has absconded, because ghosts. The only thing to do is to work with a handsome, famous scientist with a side passion for supernatural research. Shenanigans ensue.
Content warning: there is some description, on the page, of abuse. It is both physical and emotional. There is no sexual violence.
Personally, I loathe ghost stories. My immediate mental association with stories that talk about the supernatural is con artists that target grieving families and vulnerable people. Biller did something really interesting in the book though, which is to use the device to talk, perhaps a little more detached than forcing those experiences on our protagonists, about the very real and deeply troubling ways in which injustice codified in law could manifest in the real world.
This device is used to complement the central narrative between our protagonists, one of which had a loving, encouraging family and financial stability while the other grew up effectively never experiencing warm human interaction. These two types of lives on their own act as an interesting and commonly used obstacle to understanding, but when you add the layer of one of them having, if nothing else, protections in law, while the other does not, the differences are much more palatable. Without giving much away, there are a lot of parallels drawn between our widow and the scientist’s adopted brother, but other than the intense fortune of having been brought into a loving family, even if he wasn’t born into one, as a man, he also had the privilege of choosing how to live his life, how to contribute to the family that took him in. Even though it is alluded to that his first few years were likely as bad as the widow’s, he is comfortable in his own skin and navigates the world with ease. Even though the scientist was raised in a very progressive family (all the women are also scientists), he still had no idea the scope of his privilege. Both the real people and apparitions in this novel work to highlight how stark those privileges are and how crippling their absence can be.
Staggeringly, given the intensity of the subject matter, it somehow manages to be funny too. If you like dry humour, you will adore the writing. Here’s an example:
“It’s better than ghost hunting,” Benedict said as they walked out of the room.
“I don’t hunt ghosts,” Sam protested. “I bear them no ill will at all. I just want to make their acquaintance.”
“Ghost social climber, then.”
The whole book is filled with these kinds of witticisms and I laughed out loud more than once. And it’s very rare that a book does that.
I also want to touch on the intimacy in this book because it is a very sex-positive book, but more important is that it is a continuous-and-enthusiastic-consent-positive kind of book. Biller goes out of her way to show the reader not only what proper consent looks like, but that it can be just as sexy as throwing down with someone without getting verbal consent first, if not more. We see verbal discussions of what people want and what their limits are. We also see the people paying close attention to the body language of the other person and immediately reacting when they notice a change that reflects reduced interest and stop, check in, and figure out what’s going on. And even that doesn’t take away from the intimacy or ruin the mood or whatever else people seem to attribute to sex with a partner that actually cares about them.
Last point to gush about. The secondary characters. They feel like people. Even when they barely have any time on the page, there is still enough to get a sense of who they are and what their motivations are. They don’t feel like just plot drivers. It’s lovely, and I want a book about literally every person in this one.
This wouldn’t be a book review of mine if I didn’t criticize something too. For all the time the book spends trying to help people understand the lasting damage of trauma, we don’t see any residue of it at the end. Even while the book acknowledges that a rough upbringing can mean that a person might *never* be able to trust people the way they want (and deserve) to be trusted, a near death experience later and that trauma seems to have vanished entirely. I don’t buy it and I don’t like it. I don’t think their happy ending would have been diminished by the understanding that our widow is probably always going to need extra validation, that she will probably go through times where she assumes that a fight means the relationship is dead and he hates her, and all the other bullshit that comes from not feeling safe for a good long time. That you can have that trauma and still have a happy ending. Hell, I’ve been with my unshakable Balls and Chain for 13 years and I still have those moments, and my history is nowhere near as stained as hers is. So even one sentence acknowledging that this was still a reality the two of them would need to navigate, likely forever, would have really sealed this book for me.
Still, it’s a wonderful novel. It’s sweet, it’s heartwarming, it’s funny. You should read it. Even if you don’t care about ghosts.