After reading a handful of rave reviews I got very excited about The Ghosts of Ashbury High a few weeks ago and committed myself to reading it very soon. I went out and bought it shortly after Ana over at The Book Smuggler’s glowing review and wow-factor rating of a perfect 10. I’d never read anything else by Jaclyn Moriarty or anything in the loosely-connected Ashbury/Brookfield series. Many readers loved it without ever reading anything else by Moriarty, so I wasn’t worried and decided to jump right in. Despite the hype I opened it with reserved expectations yet hoping that we’d get along just fine. And in some aspects we did. Since my review is already very long and I can’t do it better, I’ll start with the summary from Goodreads:
This is the story of Amelia and Riley, bad kids from bad Brookfield High who have transferred to Ashbury High for their final year. They’ve been in love since they were fourteen, they go out dancing every night, and sleep through school all day. And Ashbury can’t get enough of them.
Everyone’s trying to get their attention; even teachers are dressing differently, trying to make their classes more interesting. Everyone wants to be cooler, tougher, funnier, hoping to be invited into their cool, self-contained world.
But they don’t know that all Amelia can think about is her past — an idyllic time before she ran away from home. Riley thinks he’s losing her to the past, maybe even to a place further back in time. He turns to the students of Ashbury for help, and things get much, much worse.
In the tradition of the gothic novel, this is a story about ghosts, secrets, madness, passion, locked doors, femmes fatales, and that terrifying moment in the final year of high school when you realise that the future’s come to get you.
The Ghosts of Ashbury High is crafted brilliantly. Told entirely through HSC exam questions, blogs, emails, and meeting minutes, the format is completely unique. There is also not one main character per se. The book is equally about the cast of characters – Emily and Lydia, Amelia and Riley, and Toby and the scholarship committee. Without a pattern or regularity, the novel alternates points-of-view between all of these characters while still managing to keep each voice distinct and instantly recognizable, which is quite a feat. In theory I found this concept refreshing and intriguing. In reality I wanted very badly for this to be true. Unfortunately I found the constant switching between characters prohibited me from becoming invested or forming real connections with any of them. Just when I finally received a subtle hint to some depth, maturity, and potential for development in one character, his/her few pages were complete and I had to start over with a different character. As a result I lost my interest in the book multiple times. The most page-turning, engaging parts of the book came when more than a few pages were dedicated to one character’s point-of-view, especially a character with whom I could sympathize. Lydia in her ambivalent denial of her absent, affair-having parents and Toby in his intellectualizing about black holes and his grief-stricken father: these were interesting characters for whom I could root. Even then, there were some characters I never really liked; for example, immature, fluffy, drama queen Emily. I think I may have loved her as a teenager, but as an adult I found her superficiality and ditziness grating. Worst of all a large portion of the events at Ashbury High are viewed through her eyes. We receive glimpses of Emily’s potential towards the end but it was not in time to convince me of her dimensionality or win me over to her side. On the other hand Riley and Amelia were so mysterious for such a large part of the book that there was never enough of them to hold onto or understand the fascination surrounding them.
Although the majority of this book was a slog for me, I still don’t regret sticking with it. As I expected every plot line comes together in the end to form a complex and satisfying conclusion. There is rhyme and reason to the mystery of Riley and Amelia. The manipulated experience of is or isn’t there an actual “ghost” is meaningful. I smiled at the sweet and fitting endings for the characters. Toby’s retelling of the history of the Irish rebellion in the settlement of Australia is well-researched, compelling, and serves a strong purpose. The musings on real and psychological ghosts, black holes, shadows, and light v. dark were insightful and thought-provoking. Still, none of these aspects blew me away or outweighed the problems I had with the format and some of the characters. I remain very torn because while The Ghosts of Ashbury High was extremely well-written and executed, it ultimately didn’t end up working for me.