Friday, April 17, 2015

Review of A Reunion of Ghosts

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication Date: March 24, 2015
Length: 400 pages
Source: Publisher, through TLC Book Tours

Synopsis from Publisher: Three wickedly funny sisters.

One family’s extraordinary legacy.

A single suicide note that spans a century …

Meet the Alter sisters: Lady, Vee, and Delph. These three mordantly witty, complex women share their family’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They love each other fiercely, but being an Alter isn’t easy. Bad luck is in their genes, passed down through the generations. Yet no matter what curves life throws at these siblings—and it’s hurled plenty—they always have a wisecrack, and one another.

In the waning days of 1999, the trio decides it’s time to close the circle of the Alter curse. But first, as the world counts down to the dawn of a new millennium, Lady, Vee, and Delph must write the final chapter of a saga lifetimes in the making—one that is inexorably intertwined with that of the twentieth century itself. Unspooling threads of history, personal memory, and family lore, they weave a mesmerizing account of their lives that stretches back decades to their great-grandfather, a brilliant scientist whose professional triumph became the sinister legacy that defines them.

Funny, heartbreaking, and utterly original, A Reunion of Ghosts is a magnificent novel about three unforgettable women bound to each other, and to their remarkable family, through the blessings and the burdens bestowed by blood.

“What if the man who invented chemical weapons was also a grandfather, and what if his great-grandchildren grew up to be three hilarious, introverted, deeply-haunted sisters? And what if those sisters co-wrote a fascinating, funny, and deeply sad 350-page suicide note? Then you’d have A Reunion of Ghosts. This is a triumphant, beautiful, and devastating novel about coincidences, family, and the sins of our fathers.” — Anthony Doerr, New York Times bestselling author of All The Light We Cannot See

My Thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed Judith Claire Mitchell's intriguing and startlingly original novel A Reunion of Ghosts. Both literary and humorous, this was a novel I absolutely devoured; I truly did not want to put it down. Mitchell has crafted a story that entertains as well as prompts the reader ponder the nature of memory, family ties, sin, and mental illness.

Mitchell deftly alternates between the lives of Lady, Vee, and Delph Alter, a trio of sisters living in Manhattan, and the lives of their great-grandparents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The witty and complicated Alter sisters struggle under the weight of a unique family history. Their great-grandfather, Jewish scientist Lenz Alter, invented chlorine gas... the very stuff which resulted in the development of chemical warfare in World War I and Zyklon B (the gas used in Nazi concentration camps to kill Jews and other prisoners). Talk about a troubling family legacy.

The terrible invention of Lenz Alter reverberates through the generations in the Alter family. Young Lady, Vee, and Delph are taught by their mother from an early age that "the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd and 4th generations." The Alter sisters believe that their family has been cursed, in a fashion, like the famous Kennedys. While this curse at times seems a bit overly fantastical (does anyone truly believe they must pay with their lives for the sins of their forefathers?), the saga of the Alter family provides a good means for contemplating the most dark and troubled parts of the history of the twentieth century.

Mitchell's well-written novel is emotionally engaging throughout, and filled with much more warmth and humor than you might expect in a novel about a family prone to suicide. I felt myself more deeply connected, at times, to the characters of Lenz and Iris Alter, as well as their friends Albert and Mileva Einstein, than to the modern-day Alter sisters. But overall, I found A Reunion of Ghosts to be a fascinating and worthwhile read. It would be a good choice for book groups; the mix of weighty themes and dark humor will please a range of readers and provide plenty of topics for discussion.

I received a complimentary copy of this novel from Harper Collins through TLC Book Tours. Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to participate in the blog tour for this book. You can visit the other stops on the tour at the official tour site here.

About Judith Claire Mitchell: Judith Claire Mitchell, author of the novel The Last Day of the War, is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she directs the MFA program in creative writing. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Judy has received fellowships from the James A. Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and elsewhere. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.


  1. It's hard to imagine a mother who would tell her children that they are doomed to suffer for the sins of their ancestors. It seems like a form of child abuse.

    But I guess it's not that different from the concept of original sin -all women have to suffer in child birth because Eve tempted Adam with the apple.

    1. This is a very morbid family! I think the family "curse" might be a bit overdone here, but it's an interesting way to look how mental illness can run in families and affect multiple generations . . . . Because i think the Alter's curse could be viewed as a tendency toward depression, which the family members interpret as a fatalistic "suffering for the sins of the ancestors" kind of thing. . . .

  2. YES!! You're back! I've been wanting to tell you that I've had some fantastic luck with books from your anticipated books of 2015 list...My Sunshine Away being my favorite. I like the sound of "literary and humor" together. I have seen mixed reviews on this one...

    1. Well.... I'm sort of back! Going to try, anyway. :) This book is definitely unusual . . . for me it was an interesting read, but I do think it probably wouldn't please everyone!

      I put myself back on the library list for My Sunshine Away . . . !

  3. The way the book is structured is so very unique, and the curse brings in a historical side to the story that really intrigues me. I'm so looking forward to reading this book!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.