Ghostgirl, by Tonya Hurley

If I could pick one book to define my sophomore year of high school, it is Ghostgirl. I found a copy in my high school library, brought it to my fourth-period Consumers Ed class, and really did not want to stop reading it. It was unlike any other hardcover book I’d happened upon, with a window in the cover that turned from a silhouette to a matching drawing of the main character. And somehow, the story of a high school girl becoming a ghost whose unfinished business is going to the dance with the cute football star really appealed to me.

Having reread this book for the first time in many years, I can confidently say that the aesthetic of the hardcover copy has held up better than the story inside.

Charlotte Usher wants to make her senior year her year. She will sign up for the cheerleading squad, change her hair and fashion style, and hopefully gain the attention of her longtime crush, football star Damen Dylan. But that all changes at the end of her first-period class, where she accidentally chokes on a gummy bear and dies. This opens Charlotte up to a parallel world inside her school, where several other dead students are learning to accept their deaths and move on. But Charlotte is determined to get the guy, so she ropes her classmate Scarlet into her master plan, even if it might jeopardize her dead classmates’ chances of going into the light…

Let me tell you, Ghostgirl was an aesthetic for me back in the late 2000s. There was a website and everything, with news surrounding book series releases, games, blogs, music videos, and even an excerpt of the Parker Posey-narrated audiobook. I thought the drawings of Charlotte, with her wild hair, whited-out eyes, and gray dress, were the cutest macabre thing. It was an aesthetic that I wished I could emulate in everyday life, but I was not allowed to shop at Hot Topic and other “goth” stores, so I could only enjoy it in private.

Which brings me to the point of the aesthetic of this book aging better than the story inside.

The description claims Ghostgirl is a satirical look at the superficiality of high school, especially how not even death can stop a teenage girl from wanting to attend the dance with her football star crush. The problem is that the so-called satire is not all that funny, and it just crosses the line from somewhat witty to annoying.

Charlotte’s unfinished business with taking her crush Damen to a dance would be cute if Charlotte were something other than a whiny, single-minded brat. She is open about having stalked Damen, taken pictures of him, hacked his schedule, and even created a Flash animation of her and Damen dancing together. I can see why this is supposed to be satirical, but because there is no other reason to care about Charlotte, it all makes her appear obsessed and desperate.

Maybe I’m just a jaded thirtysomething who has learned that there are way more important things than taking a jock to a high school dance, but I do not like Charlotte as a protagonist like I used to. The book tells us that she is sometimes genuine, but if I don’t feel it, I’m not going to believe that she is. And so, I am not interested in whether she gets the guy and moves on.

And I do not feel sorry when her classmates get mad at her for blatantly ignoring their needs, or when people tell her she is acting like an undependable moron.

The more I read, the more I realized the story might be better told through Scarlet.

Scarlet is Damen’s girlfriend’s sister, and can actually see Charlotte, so she agrees to let Charlotte use her body in order to get closer to Damen. Obviously, that creates some humor about Scarlet and Charlotte’s differing personalities playing possession tug-of-war, but it does create some dissonance in Damen developing any kind of meaningful relationship with either character.

But Scarlet, unlike Charlotte, feels like a genuine character. She may be completely jaded and closed off, but she feels like a more rounded, less superficial, and mature character. She has wants and needs, but at least she is not selfish or unlikable.

Scarlet is simply much more interesting. She may have a little less dramatic arc than Charlotte, but she would still have left a better impression as a protagonist.

And can I just say how it always annoyed me that Charlotte and Scaret’s names sound so similar to each other? I’m sure there’s a comical reason for that, but it makes keeping track of their possession scenes much more confusing.

These two also don’t develop the kind of friendship that would warrant the sacrifices they make for each other. What exactly made Charlotte Scarlet’s best friend? Charlotte used Scarlet’s body without ever really bonding with her, and I’m pretty sure Charlotte never even thanked her. 

Lord knows why the comical angle was used in the first place. Maybe the author thought the subject matter was too heavy without it, but playing the story straight might have made the emotional arc more substantial. Maybe we would have gotten more reasons for Charlotte to chase Damen other than that he is cute. Heck, we might have gotten more insight into Charlotte and just how truly lonely her life was and why it is so important to get that validation from Damen and no one else.

The aesthetic of Ghostgirl is still fun, and it does bring back some nostalgia for the first time I read it. However, as someone looking for more emotional depth in their stories, especially ones about ghosts, I’ll probably leave it on the shelf for many more years. Or, like real ghosts, I should let it go into the light of the used book store.

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