Getting Back to Normal by Marilyn Levinson
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, Paranormal
Length: Short Story (103 pages)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe
Sixth-grader Vannie Taylor’s mom has just died. Her father, completely lost without his wife, brings Vannie and her younger brother to live in a dismal cottage on the estate where he manages craft fairs, dinners, and other events. When strange events start happening around the estate, Vannie decides to investigate, and soon discovers a ghost who wants her to help him make amends for something in his past. Vannie’s life is starting to get back to normal, but in a way she’s never imagined.
Death doesn’t have to be the end. Spirits who deeply regret terrible decisions they made in life have a slim chance of fixing their mistakes if they can find someone to give them a hand. The problem is that most of the living are either unaware of the dead or have no interest in helping them.
All it takes is one willing assistant, though. Will Vannie agree to help someone she barely knows? I puzzled over this question as the plot thickened. Once I figured out what she needed to do I wondered how reasonable it was for her to agree to it. Had I been in her shoes I don’t know if I would have been equally willing to make the same sacrifice.
The relationship between Vannie’s younger brother, Robby, and the feral cat he desperately wants to tame is a welcome relief from an otherwise serious storyline. His well-meaning but sometimes comedic attempts to make a pet out of a creature that has no concept of the term bring out the nurturing side of his older sister’s personality. While they occasionally annoy one another, it was nice to see such a warm bond between siblings in a young adult novel.
Vannie’s father, Roger, quickly moves on with his life after his wife’s death. Shortly after she dies he transitions his kids to a new home on the other side of town, and he soon introduces even more disruptive changes into their lives. His reasons for wanting to uproot his children weren’t clear to me until the final chapter, and I wish I had learned about them much earlier in the plot. Knowing this information right away would have helped me empathize with his point of view as I found it difficult to understand how a father could be so emotionally disengaged from his children. Throughout all of these adjustments in the Taylor family, Roger is a distant and short-tempered parent who leaves the practical aspects of running a household up to his preteen daughter. In certain ways Vannie acts more like an adult than her own father, and I didn’t think it was appropriate for her to assume so much responsibility at such a tender age.
With that being said, the paranormal scenes in this story that waver between lighthearted and disturbing conversations enhance the allure of Merrymount Gardens and everyone who lives there. The ghost Vannie meets has been trying to get help from the living for decades, and as soon as he realizes Vannie can see him he wastes no time in introducing himself. Eventually the ghost reveals something surprising about his personality that makes this book too frightening for readers under the age of 12. The twist adds unexpected depth to previous scenes, though, and transforms the plot into something well-suited for its intended audience.
I’d recommend Getting Back to Normal to anyone who loves the thrill of uncovering long dead secrets. This book is packed full of them, and I had a wonderful time discovering the truth with Vannie.