Saturday, November 4, 2017

Book Review: "The Ghost Notebooks" by Ben Dolnick

Nick and Hannah's relationship is in a bit of a tumultuous phase—she recently lost her job, they've both been reluctant to talk about getting married even though that is the next logical step in their relationship, and there's tension all over the place—when Hannah admits that she has applied for a job as the director of the Wright Historic House, a museum devoted to an obscure 19th century writer and philosopher in a tiny upstate New York town.

The time between her first phone interview and the job offer seems to fly, and while leaving New York City for a small town isn't quite what Nick had in mind, he's realized he doesn't want to lose Hannah. And for a while everything seems charming—they speak to each other in Masterpiece Theater-like accents, enjoy visiting the town's one grocery store, and can finally listen to the sounds of nature outside their home as opposed to the hustle and bustle of the city. But then the reality of running a museum that very few visitors come to, and dealing with the machinations of a volunteer related to the person whose life the museum commemorates becomes more of a chore than a pleasure.

One night Hannah wakes Nick claiming to hear voices talking, but Nick hears nothing. There have been rumors through the years that the Wright House is visited by ghosts, and a woman whose family lived in the house before it became a museum once disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The stress of being convinced she is seeing and hearing things starts to take its toll on Hannah's already-fragile psyche and her relationship with Nick, which is already straining under the stress of trying to settle on wedding arrangements.

Nick awakens one morning to find Hannah gone. As he tries to figure out what happened to her, he starts to realize she was more emotionally fragile than even he realized, and he is determined to understand whether the house really is possessed by spirits which haunted Hannah, or whether it was her own mind playing tricks on her. His quest forces him to confront concepts of ghosts and the legacy of a troubled writer, and compels him in directions he'd never imagined before.

I honestly wasn't too sure what to make of The Ghost Notebooks. It's certainly an interesting exploration of how a relationship fares under intense pressure, emotional and otherwise, and it's also a look at how grief and extreme emotional stress can cause you to act in very bizarre ways. But I don't know what Ben Dolnick was really trying to say about the situation his characters found themselves in, and whether there really was something supernatural going on, or whether it was some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

I've read all of Dolnick's other books—Zoology, You Know Who You Are and At the Bottom of Everything—and I really enjoy the way he writes, and the complexity he brings to his characters. I felt that on the whole, the story flowed well, but it went a little off the rails after a while, and I don't know if that was intentional or not. In the end, while there were some poignant parts of the story, it didn't resonate for me as I'd hoped it would. But if anyone else reads this and has a different take, I'd love to hear it!

NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!


  1. Interesting premise. Probably not for me, but I did like his last one, At The Bottom Of Everything. That book stayed with me.

  2. I definitely liked his other books more than this one.