First her mom tries to feed her greasy syrniki, then she gets ignored by the boy she has a crush on, the weird nerd tries to catch her eye, she has a fight with her only friend over cigarettes…
and she falls down a well. Typical. Just typical of Anya’s miserable high school life.
Anya Borzakovskaya has worked hard to be a normal American teenager, not a Russian “foob” (fresh off the boat). She’s gotten rid of her accent, she stays away from Dima, the only other Russian in her private school, she dresses right, she diets to stay thin, she smokes to look cool. Unfortunately, all her hard work has gotten her is one annoying sort-of friend, Siobhan; she’s practically invisible to the rest of the kids in school, including basketball player Sean and his nicey-nice girlfriend Elizabeth. Then Anya realizes she brought home more than just a sprained wrist from her hours in the well.
Emily the ghost is a great friend…at first. She helps Anya cheat so she can do well in school and after careful study of current magazines, Anya gets a makeover for the party where she hopes to catch Sean’s eye. But Anya starts realizing she doesn’t want what she thought she did – and she doesn’t want what Emily has to offer. Anya has been envying the other kids for years, the kids who have normal lives, lots of friends, boyfriends, good grades, etc. etc. without ever thinking about she has or could create for herself. But the final moments of horror shift into something gentler as Anya tells ghost Emily – and herself – “what you want doesn’t even exist.”
Brosgol’s art, in shades of gray and violet, is expressive and moody. She perfectly captures Anya’s sulks and frustration as well as her growing self-acceptance. The characterization of Emily, as she progresses from a harmless little ghost to an excited friend to something more dangerous is subtle and perfectly captured in swirls of white and gray lines. Even the “popular kids” are never a faceless crowd, each one having a distinct personality and issues of their own, even if Anya doesn’t see them. The simple backgrounds emphasize the character-driven story and the shifts from suburban town to wild forest and field are perfectly timed to follow the shifts in Anya’s feelings and the movement of the plot.
This is a ghost story, a horror story, and a mystery, but most of all it’s a story about self-acceptance and figuring out what you really want in life. Anya doesn’t overnight turn into a flag-waving fan of her native Russia, or a saintly teen girl who does everything her mother wants. But she does discover there are things in life she’s been missing through her own narrow-minded focus on being normal and having the life she imagines the other teens at school are experiencing. Readers of Hope Larson will snatch this title up right away – and while Anya isn’t as initially likable as the protagonists of Raina Telgemeier’s Smile or Laura Gulledge’s Page by Paige, fans of these popular graphic novels who are ready for something grittier will appreciate the stronger emotions and painful growth of Anya and her ghost.
While there is quite a bit of smoking, an obviously alcoholic party with implied sex, and cheating-by-ghost, Anya finally realizes these behaviors aren’t what she wants out of life. The murder is overshadowed by the changes it makes in the relationship between Anya and Emily and the images don’t show any of the actual violence. The emotional depth of the characters however, will pass over the heads of most younger readers, making this title most suitable for teens.
by Vera Brosgol
First Second, 2011