by Vera Brosgol
First Second Publishing
Review by Arielle Sorkinator
Anya’s Ghost has a fairly straight-forward premise: Anya’s a teenage immigrant who finds it difficult to fit in. One day, she tumbles down a hole and picks up a new ghost friend that, unfortunately for Anya, isn’t as nice as she seems.
At a basic level, it’s Anya’s coming-of-age story. Stories about teenage character growth are hardly a new phenomenon, even with a paranormal twist, but Vera Brosgol succeeds where so many fail: Anya is a flawed, obnoxious brat of a teenager, but she doesn’t feel like a grumpy old man’s caricature. Even when Anya is shallow, her anxieties feel genuine to a girl in her position. She has an unrealistic ideal of the “cool” person that she wants to become, but Brosgol weaves motivation throughout the story that helps us understand why Anya is as unpleasant and seemingly shallow as she seems. For example, her bristly, rude personality is reactionary to the bullying she received as a child. So much of her identity is based around trying not to be identifiably foreign, yet so much of her identity is defined by her foreign background. As a result, she’s unhappy and conflicted, focusing not on who she wants to be, but what she needs to not be in order to achieve her unrealistic, ideal self.
And most of her problems are easy for any teenage girl to identify with. Societal pressure is pretty darn tough on young ladies of any origin.
Through all her flaws, Anya isn’t unlikable. She’s blunt and course and makes mistakes, but ultimately she’s fairly sensible. She’s not dripping with empathy and won’t jump at the chance to help others, but she’ll move to action when she feels she’s needed. She’s certainly capable of both gratitude and guilt. The framing of Anya’s personality is unique though: Brosgol doesn’t present her unsociable traits as Anya’s weaknesses.
At the end of the story, Anya’s grown to understand that she doesn’t need to be somebody she’s not, that she doesn’t need to violently reject every facet of her culture, but that doesn’t mean that she’s stopped skipping class or hanging out with her delinquent best friend. She’s not magically a kinder person; the traits she exhibits at the end of the book are just polished from what was already there at the beginning of the book. Anya grows into being comfortable with the person she is, which doesn’t necessarily mean being a more ideal human being. The flaws that she grows out of are her lack of self-confidence and self-worth, and she learns to accept all parts of herself.
I don’t see a lot of books that allow the main character, especially a female one, accept her imperfect self. Anya doesn’t get a make-over, she doesn’t learn how to be cool or how to be a better person. She learns how to be herself with the acknowledgement that what entails isn’t perfect, not some adult’s idea of what a mature young woman should be.
Playing foil to Anya is the titular ghost, Emily.
She’s cute, but she embodies the issues Anya has with her self-esteem. Emily helps Anya’s idealistic desires become reality, which helps Anya realize what she really does and doesn’t want out of life.
All in all, I would recommend this book to everyone, but especially young girls and teenagers. It’s an honest look at self-discovery without the pressure of coming out perfect on the other end. Girls have historically always been pressured to be perfect, beautiful, kind—Anya’s Ghost tells them that they don’t need to be. They just need to respect themselves, even the parts that they or even others may not approve of. In the end, our self-respect is what really matters.