Author: Nell Freudenberger
Source: from publisher for review
Summary: This story had a lot of potential, with great themes and beautiful writing, but lost steam in the second half.
“Helen Clapp is a physics professor. She doesn’t believe in pseudo-science, or time travel and especially not in ghosts. So when she gets a missed call from Charlie, her closest friend from university with whom she hasn’t spoken in over a year, Helen thinks there must be some mistake. Because Charlie died two days ago.” (source)
I loved the premise of this book and initially, I loved the execution too. I can’t get enough of books about female scientists. I also more generally enjoy books where a fascinating career is a large part of our protagonist’s life. Work occupies a large space in many of our lives, yet in books, it’s so often glossed over or left out entirely. This book did a wonderful job describing Helen’s work as a physics professor. The author seems to have really done her research. She explains specific details of Helen’s work at least well enough to fool someone with a pop-science based knowledge of physics, such as myself. Her description of the components of Helen’s academic career also ring true.
The author portrays other elements of the story with equal authenticity. The conversations Helen has with her son, Jack, remind me of stories from my sister, who works with children who really do say the darnedest things. Stories from Helen’s past contain casual asides, making her feel like a complete person with a past we’re only glimpsing part of. The amount of detail given about each person or incident feels like precisely the amount someone would really share when telling a story. Characters’ quirks and features are revealed slowly and naturally, contributing to the feeling that they’re real, well-rounded human beings. The dialogue was also quite convincing.
Helen’s career combined well with the idea of ghosts, allowing the author to discuss some fascinating themes. Physics terms were used rather cleverly to discuss emotional or metaphysical concepts. Some of the physics analogies used to muse about big human questions were truly fantastic. The focus of physics is often on trying to answer big questions as well, so the pairing of this work with themes like human connection; death and grieving; and life choices just felt right. Additionally, Helen’s role as a female physicist and Charlie’s experience as a black woman in Hollywood allowed for some insightful commentary on female ambition and race in different contexts. Some of this commentary flowed well; other parts felt shoe-horned in; all of it felt pretty on point to me.
Unfortunately, the second half of this book lagged. There wasn’t much plot or character development. Some big reveals that could have been emotional weren’t for me. I felt like the author rushed through them and didn’t describe them in emotional enough terms to be engaging. With all the potential of this novel, I just wanted more from the second half.