Sixteen-year-old Olivia Tithe has had better epochs in her life. Her parents divorced, and she lost her ability to see colors and flunked out of art school. That's bad. What makes it even more brutal is that her dad is already engaged, the boy who's been her best friend since she was four has been killed, and her mom is in a mental ward, charged with his murder.
It's summer in Miami, and things couldn't seem to get much worse. That's when Olivia first meets her best-friend's ghost.
Stern and Olivia shared one of those lifelong bonds certain people develop, where preschool best-friendship moves on to helping one another through the awkward zits-and-crushes phase of adolescence, then to being on adulthood's cusp, and realizing that you've fallen in love with your best friend. They share one kiss before Olivia has to go back to the prestigious art school in Michigan.
That kiss is the last time she sees Stern alive.
On the rounds of Summer parties, Olivia attracts the notice of Austin, a super-handsome rich kid, whom Olivia has always loathed. Unfortunately, she can't hide from Austin totally, because her father and Austin's father are partners in a new condominium development.
As they encounter each other over the summer, Olivia finds that Austin might not be such a bad guy after all.
Stern's ghost keeps popping back in Olivia's life. He can't always control his visits, but there's one thing he wants Olivia to know: her mom didn't kill him. He can't remember who did; that would make life too easy.
Her mother's sentencing is just around the corner. Will Olivia be able to help her mom in time?
These are the various threads of Kate Ellison's excellent "Notes from Ghost Town," one of the most unputdownable books I've read in awhile. Olivia makes a tremendous central character. She's a fiery redhead, bitter with the turns her life has taken. Worse still, she is somewhat convinced that she might have inherited her mother's schizophrenia, so she has to watch what she says,lest her own sanity be questioned. As she narrates the story, we see the conflicting emotions within her, the rage, love, self-pity--an entire emotional melange.
As she looks deeper into her mother's case, some very odd facts emerge, muddying Olivia's already distorted view of things.
Olivia's narration is spot-on. It's obvious that she's down at the moment, but she has one of those lives that buzz like a high-tension power line. Though she may have lost her color vision, Olivia's creative genius is still at full power, along with an artist's eye for patterns.
I can't reveal too much here without spoilers. This is one of those novels where I figured out "whodunit" early on, but it didn't matter. There was such energy and life in each page, that it was a joy to read--it didn't matter that I knew who did what. I wanted Olivia to know, if only to bring some serenity and closure in her life.
I guess it would be like her color vision. I can look outside and see that the sky is blue. I want Olivia to be able to see it for herself.
Kate Ellison has created a beautiful vision of steambath Miami in summertime, added some brilliantly drawn characters, and topped it all off with an intriguing, well-told story.