Genre fiction lover: Romance, Sci Fi, Fantasy, Mystery, Urban Fantasy
i first came across this book when it was posted as a romance novel freebie on a discussion list I am on.
At first glance the title and cover do not scream "romance". In fact they scream Stephen King Horror. And then you add in the blurb:
He pledged to protect, honor, and cherish me; instead, when he returned from the War, he ended up stalking, terrorizing, and killing me when I did not return his affections. The decorated hero then turned the gun on himself and ended his life while he cradled my dead body. Through his selfishness, he resigned us to a never-ending purgatory, stuck between the Living and the Dead.
As a matter of fact my first reaction was 'Aw, Hell no."
But then my second reaction was "hmmmm...." I am fascinated despite myself.
I told myself there was no way this was a romance, ergo, I would read it as regular fiction and not expect traditional romance. I might get an interesting read out of it.
You know what? This is a romance. It is unconventional as hell, but it is a romance nonetheless.
The story takes place in two parts.
The first part is roughly the first third of the story. It takes place in 1945 just before the end of WWII. Baxter Bennett is the older son of a well-to-do Southern family who is a lieutenant in the US Army and who is being shipped back home right before the end of the war because of injury and what we now know is PTSD.
His family used to employ a black woman as their housekeeper and Baxter had been in love with her daughter, Spicey, for as long as he can remember. Spicey of course is smart. While she may enjoy the fact of Baxter's affections, she knows they are unrealistic. But Baxter, in what I find to be a pretty smartly written characterization of blind white male privilege, sees nothing wrong with loving Spicey. He loves her so that must make everything ok. Right?
But that all changed the night Baxter's younger brother, Carver and a group of local good 'ol boys lynch Spicey's older brother.
The Bennett family are fairly decent people. The sons Baxter and Carver are products of their times. They are white males in the south who think nothing of causally calling black folks "nigger." From Baxter's perspective you get the sense he uses the word as the same way he would use it if he were describing someone as tall. Again his unthinking privilege is at play here. But Carver really uses it with all the malicious, perjorative intonations intact.
Carver is a real piece of work, He is unhappy and disaffected and a bully. He couldn't go to war because of a bad foot and he feels emasculated by seeing all the young black men in his town coming home in naval and army uniforms. In a way his hatred and anger holds his family hostage. His parents see what he is but are powerless to really do anything about him and are somewhat afraid of him, and Baxter feels protective of his younger brother inaccurately assessing him as nothing but a loud mouth who is no real danger to anyone, blind to his real personality.
But Carver is a powder keg and his anger and jealousy touches off a series of events that end with Spicey dead and Baxter in the throes of some serious PTSD killing himself over her already dead body.
It turns out that Baxter was going to ask Spicey to marry him and he bought a small house to propose in. The house is the site of their deaths (no he did not murder her). And in a turn of events neither of them could have predicted, they both return as ghosts tied to the house. They can't leave the property and they can't cross over.
The rest of the book, the last two-thirds, takes a very different turn. It reads like a cross between the movie 'Topper' meets the movie 'All of Me' meets the movie 'Ghost'. It lightens up quite a bit as well.
Spicey and Baxter live as ghosts for the next 70 or so years. They are witnesses as people come and live in the house over the years. The two of them trying to figure out why they are still there and working out their own issues. Spicey starts out very angry with Baxter and his role -- even if passive -- in the destruction of her family. He must learn to listen and understand how his inaction and his blindness toward his brother contributed to events.
In the meantime, they both slowly begin to rely on each other. The story jumps to the 70s and then to the 90s and finally to present day. During those times they get involved (in a sort of spectator way) with the families that move into the house. it is funny and fascinating for them to hear all the stories that swirl around the mythology of the house and what really happened there that fateful night, as well as their reactions to modern technology and changes in the world around them.
As time passes, Spicey slowly falls in love with Baxter and Baxter's love for Spicey grows into something that is less proprietary to something deeper and more true. Baxter also undergoes a more profound change as he begins to internalize the attitudes of the changing society around them as well. As a ghost he becomes a modern man. I loved the scenes where he watched a documentary on the ending of WWII (he was dead before Armistice). And both his and Spicey's reaction when they found out Barack Obama was president.
And then things take another fascinating turn when Spicey has the opportunity to right some past wrongs when a geriatric Carver comes back across their radar.
I am rather glad I didn't let the blurb put me off. It really doesn't jibe with the story being told. The story is lighter in tone -- there are some authentically funny parts-- (Spicey discovers Cinemax soft-porn, while Baxter is prudish and refuses to watch) than the blurb or title suggest. There are some other nice surprises in the story and the writing was really rather evocative. The writer is quite talented and has an interesting voice.
Also since Spicey and Baxter are ghosts who are basically hanging our for eternity, their romance gives Happily Ever After a whole different meaning.