Book Review: Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella

Book Review: Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella


Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella
My rating: 6 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from the publisher (Random House) and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Ghosts of Harvard completely blew me away. At its core, it houses such a poignant window into mental illness and the victims it leaves behind when those struggling with it take their own lives. The portrayal of grief is brutal and beautiful and real. And yet this story is so much more than that. As she explores the Harvard campus on which her brother took his own life, Cady is faced with a plethora of mysteries. While her brother’s last days consume her from the start, she also finds herself digging into the university’s past as she grapples with fear over her own future. Ghosts of Harvard is a brilliant and seamless bridging of so many ideas and genres. I am in awe of how much research went into the writing of this book, and how Serritella was able to convey so much without a single aspect feeling forced. She struck a perfect balance in so many ways, and she truly gave the world a gift through the publication of this novel.

“Then where’s the room for a leap of faith? Just because you can’t explain something doesn’t make it untrue.”

Is there anything more terrifying that the fear of madness? The author does a brilliant job at portraying that fear in Cady. While she is compelled to investigate her brother’s suicide and discover what drove him during his last days, she is also fighting a rising terror that she is schizophrenic, as well. Her reactions are wholly believable without being either overly dramatic or unconvincingly nonchalant. Watching her spiral over the course of her investigation was disturbing and tense and filled me with a compassion for her that I find rarely invoked by fictional characters. Cady felt so real to me. She’s a bright girl who always lived in her brother’s shadow, and she doesn’t know how to do anything but follow in his footsteps. Cady is also one of the most internally aware and honest characters I’ve come across. She asks herself hard questions and tries her best to answer them, even when it’s impossible. She truly struggles to not only understand the brother who left her, but to learn who she is as a person, and I found this journey enthralling.

“The say that fate is written in the stars, but the irony is that stars don’t project the future, they reflect the past… I like to think [the people we’ve lost] are like the stars. Their light hasn’t gone out. Candlelight goes out. But something as bright as a star, as a soul, that light moves on.”

This is a novel of obsession. Cady is completely obsessed with learning all she can about her brother’s last year of life, and finding any little excuse she can grasp that might have finally pushed him over the edge into suicide. She is so consumed by this need for information that she begins seeing conspiracies in every shadow. How much of this need is madness worming its way into her own mind, and how much is actually real? And how can she maintain her grasp on reality, and her new life on an incredibly prestigious and difficult campus when she’s so wrapped up in the past?

“But time was two-faced. Minutes that ticks by like any other were the moments that changed a life forever, yet revealed themselves too late.”

Then there are the ghosts. The voices that Cady begins hearing in her head are one of the most fascinating elements of this novel. Are they an indicator that she is spiraling into madness? Are they supernatural phenomena? Or can they be explained by weird science along the lines of that explored in Blake Crouch’s most recent novels? All three possibilities were deftly juggled in a way that never tipped the author’s hand, but also didn’t feel frustratingly vague. There was one reveal in this ghostly aspect of the book that literally elicited a physiological response from me. With one word, or rather, one name, I found myself covered from shin to eyebrow with chills. It was a powerful moment.

“Do we all pick only the best snapshots to remember in our mental scrapbooks and throw away the bad? Perhaps all photo albums should bear the subtitle The Past—The Way You Want to Remember It.”

I’m a sucker for any novel revolving around or set within academia. Any school story is immediately appealing to me. Very few real-life schools are more well known than Harvard, so I was excited to pick up this book merely on the basis of the title. Thankfully, the school setting was truly utilized here, and the school itself became a very important character in its own right. The history of the school is fascinating, and I learned so much over the course of reading Ghosts of Harvard. And yet I never felt like Serritella was being too heavy-handed in her conveyance of this history, but instead balanced it very well against every other element of the story.

“History is never as simple a narrative as we write in books.”

Some people have expressed a frustration with the slow pacing of the book. I felt that pacing was actually very well maintained. Yes, the story meanders. But it’s meant to! Because we are experiencing Cady’s revelations alongside her, I felt that the pace of the story emphasized the time and care she as a character was putting into her hunt for answers. Her flashbacks were meted out in exactly the right amount. I never felt myself drowning in backstory, but was instead excited to see more of Cady’s past and how it had shaped her. I found the rhythm of the novel captivating. I also found the book far more unpredictable than I would have expected, which was a welcome surprise. This is a story that definitely keeps you on your toes.

“She noticed how easy it was to edit someone’s past so that all the pieces of a person fit neatly together… The lie endures for generations, while the truth dies with its victims. But what were the consequences?”

Probably my favorite element of this book was the philosophical bent to the writing. Serritella has a beautiful way with words, and I heavily annotated my copy. Not only does she write beautifully, she writes deeply. There was so much philosophical depth to this book. I was prompted to really think and self-evaluate over the course of the book. Not only was I touched by Cady’s story, I was actually impacted by it in a way that I truly believe will stick with me.

“Adventure is only possible if you don’t spoil the ending.”

Much like the university after which it is named, Ghosts of Harvard contains multitudes. This book is a campus mystery, a coming of age story, a scientific exploration of mental illness, a tale of espionage, a moving historical account, a romance, an esoteric dive into poetry and philosophy and faith and prejudice and a family drama. While this mingling could have led to a bloated and unpalatable slough, all of these elements were instead woven together with a level of grace and care that is truly rare. It was everything I hoped it would be and more, and I will be doing my best to get it into as many hands as I can. It’s a book that will haunt me, and I gladly welcome it.

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