Thursday, May 28, 2020

Review: Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella

Ghosts of Harvard
Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella
Random House
Publication Date: April 14th, 2020
Hardcover. 480 pages

About Ghosts of Harvard:

"Cadence Archer arrives on Harvard’s campus desperate to understand why her brother, Eric, a genius who developed paranoid schizophrenia took his own life there the year before. Losing Eric has left a black hole in Cady’s life, and while her decision to follow in her brother’s footsteps threatens to break her family apart, she is haunted by questions of what she might have missed. And there’s only one place to find answers. 

As Cady struggles under the enormous pressure at Harvard, she investigates her brother’s final year, armed only with a blue notebook of Eric’s cryptic scribblings. She knew he had been struggling with paranoia, delusions, and illusory enemies—but what tipped him over the edge? With her suspicions mounting, Cady herself begins to hear voices, seemingly belonging to three ghosts who walked the university’s hallowed halls—or huddled in its slave quarters. Among them is a person whose name has been buried for centuries, and another whose name mankind will never forget. 

Does she share Eric’s illness, or is she tapping into something else? Cady doesn’t know how or why these ghosts are contacting her, but as she is drawn deeper into their worlds, she believes they’re moving her closer to the truth about Eric, even as keeping them secret isolates her further. Will listening to these voices lead her to the one voice she craves—her brother’s—or will she follow them down a path to her own destruction?"

Ghosts of Harvard is a story revolving around Cadence (Cady) Archer as she navigates her life as a new freshman at Harvard--the same place where her brother, Eric, committed suicide a few years before. Her father is supportive of her decision to attend the same university, but her mother struggles to understand how she could attend the same school that cause her family so much pain, which contributes to a lot of tension that already exists within this small family.

As you might expect based upon the synopsis, this is an emotionally intense read and handles some extremely heavy subject matters. I thought that Serritella was particularly deft at handling these topics and I really appreciated her nuanced approach at showcasing how Cady, her father, and her mother all uniquely handled such a traumatic experience. I didn't feel that anything was over- or underdone and that Cady's questions and struggles with her grief were conveyed in a really well-written manner.

Cady herself, however, was a character that I had an extremely difficult time connecting with or liking. I don't mind unlikable characters, but I don't think she was supposed to be unlikable, and I found her particularly irritating and a bit careless towards those around her. I understand that this period in Cady's life is one in which she is struggling emotionally with the grief of her brother's death and this, along with some other newfound mental struggles (namely the voices/ghosts that she hears), but I'm not sure this fully excuses some of her actions. There were times when I can see how her obsession with learning more about her brother's death overtook her thoughts, but there were also times when she actively made decisions that were incredibly baffling. I also found her motivations a little bit confusing at times about attending Harvard in the first place. I understand very well that when a loved one commits suicide, there are endless questions about why and possibly a somewhat obsessive-like desire to figure out exactly what happened, or even to find another explanation. This is very much what Cady does in this book, but the intensity behind her pursuit skyrockets in very little time in this story and I found it a bit jarring to see her somewhat over-the-top actions that just didn't fit with how she had already been introduced.

I have a lot of thoughts on the "ghosts" that Cady hears, and I can't speak too much of them because I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say that I'm still sort of questioning their purpose. On the one hand, I genuinely loved learning about the lives and stories of each ghost voice that Cady hears, and I I like how they became a part of the story in more than just one way. On the other hand, the way Serritella handles these voices as a plot device on the whole was a little perplexing to me and I found myself particularly frustrated by how the plot line involving the ghosts was wrapped up at the end. I'm not sure if others have the same frustrations as I do, but it really has left me feeling a bit irritated with the entire story. There's no real explanation for these and I would have really liked to learn more about the entire situation.

My last frustration with this is how completely off the rails I feel it gets near the end. There are a few 'out-there' moments throughout the duration of the novel, but it isn't until the ending when everything really seems to get crazy. There were a few too many things that felt over the top and I remember feeling such bafflement at some of the plotlines/points that ended up happening near the end and that involved certain characters. There was one 'reveal' in particular that felt so obvious that I didn't actually expect it to happen, yet it did, so I was surprised...but not in a good way. I was also very frustrated with how Serritella portrayed the character of Professor Prokop, as there were more than a few moments that I found particularly demeaning towards her as a woman--moments that I hoped would end up being shown as harmful thinking, but that didn't have any kind of rectification in the end (such as constantly referring to her as this 'hot blonde physics professor' that all the guys wanted, etc.).

All these issues aside, this is still an oddly compelling story. It's a bit slow at times, but I also kept reading it and actually read through it faster than I expected to, being a 480-page book. I'm in a mix of somewhere between 2-3 stars. For now, I'm going with 3 stars because of the fact that it was both oddly compelling and there were a lot of plot elements that were handled well and were interesting.

*I received an ARC of The Ghosts of Harvard in exchange for an honest review. This has no effect on my rating or enjoyment of the novel.*


  1. I've been very curious about this book, but it sounds like I'll probably pass on it now, after reading your review.

  2. I think with a book about ghosts, I might expect some odd things, but when things are completely over the top, that bothers me, too.

  3. Waste of time, the book dragged on forever and was very predictable