Judith Claire Mitchell introduces A Reunion of Ghosts
Judith Claire Mitchell introduces our Book Club choice.
A Reunion of Ghosts tells the intertwined stories of Lady, Vee, and Delph Alter, three devoted if beleaguered sisters who share a New York City apartment, an irrepressible sense of humor, and the intention to die by their own hands on the last day of the twentieth century. This predilection for suicide is not unusual in the Alter family: all the members of the past three generations of Alters have taken their own lives. Why? The answer may be found in the words tattooed on Delph’s calf: the sins of the father are visited to the 3rd & 4th generations.
The father in question is the sisters’ great grandfather Lenz Alter, a German-Jewish chemist who saved the world from famine via the first manmade fertilizers, but then introduced the world to the horror of the first poison gases used in warfare. Like those who came before them, from Lenz’s wife to his son to his granddaughters, the sisters view their Nobel Prize-winning ancestor with a discomfiting combination of pride and debilitating shame.
As the sisters prepare to end it all, they agree they must first write “the world’s longest suicide note” to explain not only their motivations, but also the role Lenz and other family members played in shaping their perceptions of the world and of themselves. A Reunion of Ghosts is that note.
A Reunion of Ghosts is partly a historical novel—while the sisters are pure inventions, Lenz is based on the chemist Fritz Haber. It’s been called a biography of the twentieth century with its endless wars and struggles for individual rights. It’s a dark comedy—the Alter sisters have never met a pun they didn’t like and can’t resist cracking wise no matter the situation—but also a meditation on fate and happenstance, on the conundrum of time and the grace of God, on the nature of our moral obligations to one another and to our selves.
And when an intruder appears inside the sisters’ apartment one stormy night, ultimately causing one of the sisters to see her life—and her impending death—anew, the novel is an examination of the joys and dilemmas that come with family.
A Reunion of Ghosts tackles a multitude of serious issues and decidedly dark topics. But because it’s narrated by three women with wicked senses of humor and fierce sisterly love, the darkness is always tempered with light and laughter...just like life itself.
'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.' Anthony Doerr