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The Ghost at the Table

The Ghost at the Table

3.0 9
by Suzanne Berne

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Strikingly different since childhood and leading dissimilar lives now, sisters Frances and Cynthia have managed to remain "devoted"—as long as they stay on opposite coasts. When Frances arranges to host Thanksgiving at her idyllic New England farmhouse, she envisions a happy family reunion, one that will include the sisters' long-estranged father.


Strikingly different since childhood and leading dissimilar lives now, sisters Frances and Cynthia have managed to remain "devoted"—as long as they stay on opposite coasts. When Frances arranges to host Thanksgiving at her idyllic New England farmhouse, she envisions a happy family reunion, one that will include the sisters' long-estranged father. Cynthia, however, doesn't understand how Frances can ignore the past their father's presence revives, a past that includes suspicions about their mother's death twenty-five years earlier.

As Thanksgiving Day arrives, with a houseful of guests looking forward to dinner, the sisters continue to struggle with different versions of a shared past, their conflict escalating to a dramatic, suspenseful climax.

Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe
“The situations [Berne] creates are so compelling—and so disturbingly familiar—that it’s hard not to be drawn in when everyone’s secrets begin to unravel.” —The Boston Globe
USA Today
"Suzanne Berne's novel is perfect reading. . . . Compelling."—USA Today
Entertainment Weekly
"Delicious. . . . Berne turns a witty tale of holiday dysfunction into a transfixing borderline gothic, her appealing heroine into an unreliable narrator seething with decades-old resentment. . . .A."—Entertainment Weekly
The Washington Post
"Wholly engaging, the perfect spark for launching a rich conversation around your own table."—The Washington Post Book World
O: the Oprah magazine
"A crash course in sibling rivalry."—O: The Oprah Magazine
Elle Magazine
"In Berne's complex emotional minuet, no one is blameless....With ferocious focus and narrative drive, Berne lets that gate swing wide open."
The San Francisco Chronicle
"Intellectually and emotionally stimulating...recalling the world of Joyce Carol Oates or of Anne Tyler, if she were ominous....Fresh and intriguing."
San Francisco Chronicle
the Oprah magazine O
"A crash course in sibling rivalry."—O: The Oprah Magazine
From the Publisher
"Intellectually and emotionally stimulating...recalling the world of Joyce Carol Oates or of Anne Tyler, if she were ominous....Fresh and intriguing."
San Francisco Chronicle
Ron Charles
There's almost no forward motion to the novel's plot, but somehow this proxy battle between Cynthia and Frances over their childhood—an effort by each sister to enforce her own version of the past and dismiss the other's memories as irrelevant or skewed—s enough to make The Ghost at the Table wholly engaging, the perfect spark for launching a rich conversation around your own table once the dishes have been cleared.

Cynthia can be a bitter narrator, and Frances's sepia-toned desire for "a regular old-fashioned family holiday" makes her an easy target, but Berne is not a bitter author, and forgiveness finally comes to these people in the most natural and believable ways. Despite some good shots at the hysteria that infects most of us around the fourth Thursday of November, this is a surprisingly tender story that celebrates the infinite frustrations and joys of these crazy people we're yoked to forever. All in all, something to add to your list of things to be grateful for.
—The Washington Post

Publishers Weekly
This taut psychological drama by Orange Prize-winner Berne (A Crime in the Neighborhood) unfolds as San Francisco freelance writer Cynthia Fiske acquiesces to her maternal older sister, Frances, and attends the Thanksgiving family reunion Frances is hosting at her perfectly restored Colonial home in Concord, Mass. Cynthia believes her father, now 82, murdered their invalid mother with an overdose of pills when Cynthia was 13, and she has no wish to ever see him again. Within months after their mother died, their father packed Frances and Cynthia off to boarding school and married the much younger Ilse, a graduate student who worked as part-time tutor to Frances. But now he's suffered a stroke. Ilse is divorcing him, and the family is placing him in a home. Tension is high by the time the assorted guests, including Frances's complicated teenage daughters, her mysterious husband and the speech-impaired patriarch, are called to Frances's table, and it doesn't take much to fan the first flares of anger into the inevitable conflagration. Berne takes an inherently dramatic conflict-one sister's intention to obfuscate the hard truths of the past vs. another's determination to drag them under a spotlight -and ratchets up the stakes with astute observation and narrative cunning. (Oct. 20) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
VOYA - Rachelle Bilz
Past family tensions, antagonisms, and lies threaten to ruin Thanksgiving for the Fiske sisters. Cynthia, the book's narrator, begins by saying that she has no intention of leaving California to attend the dinner in Concord, Massachusetts, planned by her older sister, Frances, in an attempt to reconnect them with their estranged father. Frances, a Martha Stewart-esque perfectionist with an odd husband and perplexing teenage daughters, is determined to reunite the family to clarify a muddled past and restore peace. Cynthia believes that her elderly father, now a stroke victim, was responsible for her mother's death which occurred when Cynthia was thirteen; Frances disagrees. Cynthia writes historical fiction for girls, her specialty being the stories of female writers told by a sibling, and famous writers' lives told by their daughters. Cynthia's next project is a study of Mark Twain as told by his daughters, and the similarity of the Twain family history to that of the Fiskes' provides an intriguing background for the present-day family drama taking place. Berne, winner of the 1999 Orange Prize, shapes her complex characters carefully, deftly revealing ulterior motives, misplaced blame, and inner confusion. This finely wrought psychological mystery is acute in its depictions of family dynamics and aptly reveals the harm of rivalries and secrets. Wonderfully written, this novel should appeal to female high school students who are interested in family dynamics, writers, and sisters. Any student who appreciates fine literature or aspires to write should find it a rewarding read.
Library Journal
Family dysfunction gets a much-needed makeover in this solid, satisfying novel from Orange Prize winner Berne (A Crime in the Neighborhood). When Cynthia Fiske, a successful author, reluctantly agrees to visit one of her sisters, Frances, for Thanksgiving, the siblings resume their long-running argument over what really happened the night their mother died. Despite their best efforts, this disagreement permeates their conversations, lacing each word with passive-aggressive meaning and adding suspense to daily routines. Readers who like a measured pace will enjoy the tension that builds as Cynthia's visit progresses, while those who appreciate a good metaphor will relish the parallel between Cynthia's latest project-a history of Mark Twain's daughters-and the Fiskes' own trauma. Amusing concrete symbols, e.g., a Jacuzzi-thawed turkey and one of the ugliest family heirlooms to grace the pages of contemporary fiction, add heft to the narrative, making it easy for the reader to see (and choose) sides. An original take on a frequently explored subject; recommended for medium to large fiction collections.-Leigh Anne Vrabel, Carnegie Lib. of Pittsburgh Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal

Adult/High School
Sisters, living and dead, loom large in Berne's tale of family secrets unraveled. Cynthia Fiske writes a series of historical fiction for girls, depicting the lives of remarkable women through the eyes of their slightly less-remarkable sisters. An invitation to her own sister's house for Thanksgiving in New England coincides with her need to visit Mark Twain's home in Hartford to research a new novel on the writer's daughters, whose story of a charismatic father and three troubled siblings parallels the Fiskes' history. Complicating the usual holiday tensions is the presence of their elderly father, once brash and manipulative, now disabled and facing a divorce from his much-younger wife. As the family struggles with generations of dysfunction and unspoken secrets, including the mysterious death of their mother decades earlier, Cynthia rebels by sharing the most sordid details of the long-gone Clemens family. Although she is nearing middle age, her feelings of isolation and rejection that began in childhood have left her a perpetual adolescent in relation to her family. Much like the child narrator of Donna Tartt's The Little Friend (Knopf, 2002), Berne portrays a confusing, comic, even sinister family dynamic and eschews a pat, happy ending in favor of a very real, if provocative, choice that will appeal to teen fans of family dramas.
—Jenny GassetCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews
Rivaling sisters search for family truths over a Thanksgiving holiday. Frances Fiske longs for harmony and decides to host a blowout dinner to reunite her estranged family. In her quest for unity, Frances packs the house with high-wattage conflict. When three generations of the Fiske family gather, tempers flair and skeletons begin tumbling out of closets. Out of pity and a sense of obligation, Cynthia Fiske flies east from her sequestered life as a writer to join in her sister's feast. Coming home stirs up bitter memories of a lonely childhood for Cynthia. She narrates the story and at first seems to be a reliable source for learning about the Fiskes' dirty little secrets. Cynthia talks of Frances's rocky marriage, Frances's reckless teenage daughters, Frances's Martha Stewart-like obsession with interior-design perfection. Cynthia relays tales of their mother's mysterious death and their father's romantic indiscretions. A maelstrom develops in the days leading up to the big meal. All the combustible energy makes for a great read as Cynthia and Frances battle it out to preserve a particular view of their childhood. Berne (A Crime in the Neighborhood, 1997, etc.) challenges the reader to pick a side. Cynthia's paranoia creeps through her storytelling and Frances's imperious nature furthers the chaos and miscommunications, making it tough to know whom to trust. Sampling from a few genres-mystery, historical fiction, chick lit and psychological thriller-Berne cooks up a literary feast. Her tactile descriptions and enigmatic characters saturate the story and provide a filling repast. The plot can be frustrating at times-it's a struggle to discern past from present and truth from fiction. Butthis is intentional. Berne prefers questions to answers. This substantial tale of a dysfunctional family reunion promises a holiday, and a read, to remember.

Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.54(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.86(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Suzanne Berne's The Ghost at the Table is a thriller in the tradition of Jane Eyre, where the portrait of human emotion is as dramatic as the shocking events of the story. With the novel's first line and its reluctant admission - 'Going home for Thanksgiving wasn't something I had planned on' — Berne takes a first sure step into territory familiar to readers of mystery, the place where people are led forward without necessarily wanting or intending to be, and where they will do, no doubt, things they will wish they hadn't." —Carrie Brown, author of Rose's Garden and Lamb in Love

"Suzanne Berne has written a novel as nuanced and illuminating as it is gripping. Think of a book inside a book inside a book, and, at the heart of them all, the complex lies and truths we tell our loved ones and ourselves. The Ghost at the Table is a searing, beautiful,important novel."
—Elizabeth, Graver author of Awake and Unravelling

Meet the Author

Suzanne Berne is the author of three novels, the first of which, A Crime in the Neighborhood, won great Britain’s Orange Prize. Her most recent novel is The Ghost at the Table. She lives with her family near Boston and teaches at Boston College.

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Ghost at the Table 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Rarely, do I read reviews for books before reading them - no need to spoil the fun, but for some reason I did on this one. Depressing was the overall theme for the reviews, so I went in a skeptic and hoping that this book wasn't the downer it was potrayed to be. A story that centers around the two remaining sisters of a family that started with three. With a less than wonderful childhood, these girls lost their mom early on and with that they lost their father to another woman. A sister passing away and distance made this reconnection over Thanksgiving awkward and dramatic. Add in random guests and one of the sister's two daughters, this book was even awkward in the reading. A connection between the book that sister Cynthia is writing about Mark Twain's three daughters and their childhood is interesting as she continues to give details about this book she is writing about the Twain family. It was great to read this book in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, but I am not sure I would have enjoyed it if I had read it at another time of the year.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
EMP More than 1 year ago
I didn't feel any connection between the characters. But, this was actually brilliant, because this is the gist of dysfunctional familes. The problem is that I also was unable to make a connection with the protagonist - or any other character. Having said all that, the story wasn't disjointed. The author tied everybody together through the use of the protagonist's occupation. There is a ton of "stuff" in the book ideal for analytical discussion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read the book all the way through although it was not as good a book as I would have liked. I would not read this book again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've had some issues at home, such as going back, which is what the main character struggles in. Good novel :-)
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read almost nonstop, minus the time I'm taking to write this and the time I'm forced to spend at school :-) and this book is good... it reminds me of my own life actually... take out the dad's sickness and divorce, i think it would've been better, but it's very good!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was disappointing to me. The characters seemed cold and unrealistic. And the ending was a bit foggy to me.