(St. Martin's Press, 2016)
Stephanie Gangi’s The Next takes commonly held ideas about death, dying, and ghosts and flips them on their head. Joanna, the mother to two young women, master to a faithful dog, Tom, and spurned lover of the vaguely famous Ned McGowan, is dying of cancer. In her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, she spends her days confined to a hospital bed with Laney, her youngest daughter, and Anna, her oldest daughter, to nurse her. Instead of quiet reconciliations with her ex-husband or profound moments with her daughters—the narrative around dying that is presented so often—Joanna continues to be dangerously obsessed with Ned, a man she desperately loved who left her for a celebrity dermatologist. When Joanna eventually dies, it is not peaceful. She is disturbed and yelling for her lover.
Her daughters have their own complicated reactions to Joanna’s death. Anna is upset, angry with her mother for her obsession with Ned and Laney is tasked with recreating herself in the wake. “Grief was exhausting,” Laney thinks. “Having your mother die was surprisingly, a lot of work.” None of the characters in the book have neat, expected responses to death.
In a split narrative, with chapters alternating between Joanna’s inner thoughts and an omniscient narrator who can dip into the thoughts of any of the characters, the story unfolds. Joanna may not be a particularly likable character, but her feelings of vulnerability, anger, and her desire for revenge ring true. Joanna’s last words are a cry for “Ned, Ned, Ned,” and from there, she enters into the rich and interesting land of ghosts that Gangi has created. While at times it is unclear what exactly Joanna can and cannot do as a ghost, it’s clear that she has power in the physical world and she’s not afraid to wield it to make Ned’s life a living hell. Interestingly, she spends little time connecting with her daughters or her beloved dog, and spends most of the novel finding ways to upset Ned and break apart his life with Trudi, the dermatologist he’s having a baby with. Her revenge narrative is shot through with memories of their time spent together. This is where Gangi’s prose shines. She beautifully navigates love, lust, sex, and the intricacies of a relationship with a fifteen-year age difference and a life-threatening illness in those memories that Ned and Joanna share. Even common things, like the smell of a lover, become utterly unique to Jo and Ned—“I put my nose to his neck. He smelled like scalp and skin oil and soap and Tic Tacs, his Ned smell, but also, now, sweat and ammonia and something else, too, something from the earth, damp and fleshy, up from under like mushrooms.” The weave of erotic memory and present hatred is alluring and layered.
Along with Jo’s single-minded mission, the reader follows Anna, Laney, and Ned on their own paths. All three of them are tempted by their own vices—a sexy nurse, alcohol, and young teaching assistant, respectively—and manage to go right to the edge of the mistake without falling over. Minor characters like Anna’s girlfriend Jules, Wills, the bartender at the bar where Jo and Ned were regulars, and Trudi, Ned’s girlfriend, come alive in the short spaces they occupy in the novel.
Throughout the novel, Gangi’s characters fight against the idea of a “message.” When Joanna contemplates the idea of a lesson in death—“Love it and let it go. Maybe that’s the lesson, my lesson, and maybe within that awareness, ta-da the path I need to the light of peace will be revealed. Right? Hey, that’s what the self-help books tell you”—she discards it almost in the same breath. “Fuck love,” she thinks, and becomes more committed to her revenge plot. However, by the end of the novel, the characters, it seems, have learned something. Anna finds a way to move forward with her relationship and seemingly let go of the anger she felt towards her mother, Laney applies to school and gets a new puppy, and the two of them pack up their mother’s apartment in a series of scenes that read like a montage from a feel-good movie. Ned begins to paint—something that seems out of character—and struggles to represent Jo in Belize in a series of paintings based on a photograph she left him. Joanna leaves her family behind in a version of driving off into the sunset as her ghost form enters the ocean. The shift in tone at the close of the book was jarring. In a novel so startlingly original and so unafraid to approach complicated, bald emotion and anger, an ending as neat as this one fell short.
In this short and page-turning novel, Gangi has created a main character that is at one repulsive and compelling, the ghost version of a reader’s deepest revenge fantasies. Refreshingly, Joanna is a compelling woman character who’s allowed to be as obsessed, evil, and intense as she wants. This is a ghost story, but an updated one. One that asks the reader to forget everything they knew about mothers dying of cancer and follow Joanna’s strange ghost into the fury.