The Next by Stephanie Gangi, review by Bruce Jacbos
If all you know of ghost stories is from Scouts or summer camp, wait until you meet Joanna DeAngelis in Stephanie Gangi's first novel, The Next. Divorced, dying too soon from recurrent cancer; in home hospice under the care of her daughters Laney and Anna; guided to the bathroom by her 90-pound poodle, Tom; and angry as hell at her much younger lover, Ned, who walked out on her for the celebrity dermatologist Trudi with her global social media following, Joanna is prepared for the end but unclear about what comes next. To her surprise, she is transmigrated into an invisible ghost "between realms" where she needs to choose a mission "to get to the Light." Still bitter toward Ned, the answer is obvious: "Revenge. It feels right, it's a classic, why reinvent the wheel? Isn't revenge what ghosts do?" And so off she goes to haunt the self-centered Ned--texting him from the grave, flying down Manhattan from her Morningside Heights apartment to trash his new lover's High Line "starchitect-designed building, matte-black exterior with mirrored windows you cannot see into," and generally upending his newly packaged life as Trudi's arm candy and a Fox news analyst: "insightful, politically incorrect, bawdy, condensed for the attention-disordered." What fun Joanna has manipulating and destroying this cad's smug world.
Despite her somewhat over-the-top premise, Gangi, a poet and corporate communications strategist, tells a powerful story of family, love, grief and loyalty. The relationship between the accommodating Laney and the older, bossy pediatric resident Anna is a classic love-hate sisters story, as they survive their parents' divorce and confront the death of their mother and "the exhausting mix of drama and tedium that is caregiving." They even argue over the music at the wake, held at Joanna's favorite bar. Anna berates Laney: "This is a memorial service, with, like, grown-ups, not Irving Plaza in 1982. Pardon me, I left Gang of Four off the playlist." The men in Gangi's world barely register. Joanna's ex-husband is a constantly apologizing dip, and Ned is mostly just an empty head of TV hair. Only Joanna's Tom is sympathetic and reliable: "the best dog, who moved me up and out and forward with purpose into each blue morning or indigo evening for years."
As the thrill of humbling Ned wanes, ghost Joanna begins to reflect on her life with renewed pride in her daughters and the lifelong lessons she left them with: "Rise and shine. Always make the bed. Look both ways. Don't smoke after twenty-five. Three drinks maximum. Have fun but stay safe. Make your own money. Don't have a boss--be a boss. Dance, in the car, in the supermarket, on graves. Barefoot whenever possible." There's not much funny about cancer, divorce and a broken heart, but The Next is an entertaining ghost story. Gangi gives it enough heft, however, to be a thoughtful meditation as well, on how to be a good mother, daughter, sister and lover.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.