A teenage girl narrating a novel from beyond the grave isn’t a new idea, though it is often a wildly successful one. Consider Gabrielle Zevin’s critically acclaimed Elsewhere, or look at Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, and Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall—all New York Times bestsellers. Since nobody knows for sure what happens after we die (whatever someone might claim), the afterlife presents the perfect fantastical realm: a world where none of us have been, but where all of us will someday wind up.
Every author crafts a different Great Beyond. In Jess Rothenberg’s beautifully conceived debut, The Catastrophic History of You and Me, 16-year-old Brie’s afterlife looks a lot like San Francisco. She wakes up, dead, on an empty bus, and gets dropped off at Little Slice of Heaven, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean and serves “the best pizza on the entire West Coast. Maybe even the world.” In this Californian afterworld there’s even a Golden Gate Bridge that the D&G (that’s Dead and Gone, not Dolce & Gabbana) can jump off, in order to visit the world of the living.
Brie has just died of a broken heart, literally. Her boyfriend, Jacob, tells her he doesn’t love her; her heart breaks in two. (Incidentally, this is a real thing. Even The Wall Street Journal says so.) As a ghost, Brie watches her friends throw souvenirs from her traitorous boyfriend into a beach bonfire. It’s unclear, however, whether Jacob ever realizes that he’s partially responsible for Brie’s death, and somehow her grieving parents don’t sue him for murder, or at least emotional damages.
One of the hard things about being dead (presumably) is that you lose your ability to affect the world. Yes, people are changed because Brie died: her parents’ relationship crumbles; her little brother is a wreck; her best friend and Jacob strike up a suspicious new relationship. Things change. But it’s out of Brie’s hands. She can watch, but she’s been stripped of her personal agency. She thinks at one point, when she goes to help Jacob, “When I pulled my lips away, the world was exactly as it had been before. He was still a mess. And I was nothing but a faded shadow on his bedroom wall.”
For most of the book, Brie is able to interact with our world only in the way that ghosts are supposed to. For example, her dog, Hamloaf, sees her even though she is invisible to humans, and he does that crazy barking thing that causes dog owners to say, “For Chrissakes, there’s no one at the door.” Occasionally, when Brie focuses very hard, her loved ones can briefly sense her, can hear her whispering in their ears. There is one scene in which Brie sends a text message, which is a little more high tech than ghost mythology usually goes, but otherwise the world is beyond her reach. It is changed by her death, but not by her actions.
Why do we care? If the protagonist can do anything she wants—run all over San Francisco, swim through the ocean, show up at her friends’ parties—but none of these actions affect anything on Earth, then do they even matter? This is the challenge of writing about dead girls, and every one of those bestselling authors had to deal with it.
In The Catastrophic History of You and Me, the answer seems to lie in Brie’s personal journey. Her actions may no longer have the ability to change the world of the living, but they change her. Brie passes through the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance—before she can move on to her final resting place. Even in death, she is still able to grow. It’s a wonderfully appealing premise, as Brie comes to terms with losing not only her life, but also her first love. (Don’t worry, she gets another chance at love in the afterworld; this is, after all, a Young Adult novel.)
And, of course, Brie’s growth does impact the real world—not the world inside of the book, but the world of readers who experience her journey vicariously. Ultimately, Brie’s realization is that “no matter how much you think you know a person—no matter how pretty they are, or how together they act, or how popular they seem, you can never know what their lives are really like. Not unless you ask them. And not unless you’re listening.” It’s too late for Brie to share this revelation with her boyfriend, friends, or family. But she can share it with us, the readers. And we are the ones who are alive in the world, ready to change it.