Stephanie Gangi’s novel The Next sets the table for an unbelievable scenario. Imagine being betrayed by the man you love. Now imagine being confined to a bed, the victim of a relentless cancer that will kill you any minute now. You feel rage and a sense of almost sociopathic detachment from your daughters, and your loyal dog who fetches your phone when you need to cyber-stalk you ex is the only one who understands. You want revenge from the man who left you so cruelly, but you’re out of time and out of life.
Gangi is not trying to sell the premise of a religious-based afterlife story. Joanna DeAngelo, the novel’s protagonist does uncharacteristically die, alone, powerless, humiliated, and furious with her younger ex-lover Ned, who left her in the worst of her illness for a fresher prospect. This is no spoiler, because Joanna’s death happens at the beginning of the novel. Her demise is accompanied by flashbacks of how she and Ned met, their tempestuous affair, her all-consuming desire and borderline obsession for him, which ends up ruining the time she has left with her daughters. As Joanna lays on what has progressively become her deathbed, she contemplates the desperation of her current state.
I focus. To see without sight, to intuit celestial signals, stars, a path, a way made for me, a way to go. I’m looking for a light. Give me something, give me a light.
Something isn’t right. Terror and certainty collide.
This is not my beautiful life, this is not my beautiful death. I roll alone in a dark of my own making, trapped inside a flip-book of the last ten years.
When Joanna dies, alone and with the sense that she has been wronged by life, she transcends. To where exactly Gangi doesn’t really disclose but perhaps as a last show of mercy, Joanna is granted the chance to return to the land of the living as an “unresolved”and move among people unseen. Her first choice turns out to be her own funeral.
She moves among friends, her ex-husband and her daughters undetected, only visible to her beloved dog Tom. With so much rage in her unsettled spirit, Joanna can’t help but try out her prowess as a newborn specter, and throws a tantrum which sends trays of food and in memoriam posters flying. But playing out small bouts of vexation here and there isn’t the reason she’s still hanging around, her real target is Ned.
Fueled with a madness accentuated by her new residence in the afterlife, Joanna sets out to mercilessly haunt Ned. She targets him while he is alone with the frightening accuracy of a murderous poltergeist. Shoving, pushing, hitting, and emitting otherworldly screams that send Ned into a state of fear and desperation from the ghost of the woman he claims to have loved but unceremoniously betrayed.
Gangi leads Joanna to delve deeper into her newfound out-of-body reality while alternately exploring her past life through multiple POVs. Her relationship with her ex-husband, with the lover who betrayed her, and with her troubled daughters. She discovers she knew nothing about her children’s lives when she lived as her desire and furious obsession for Ned dominated her final years.
In death, Joanna finds a new form of female power, an unstoppable awareness of who she was and how she wants to be remembered. If happiness was beyond Joanna’s reach in life, in death she discovers an undiscovered sense of self. A purpose that has little to do with religious elucidation and more entwined with the awakening of her soul, which had withered and retreated during the last months of her life.
Gangi doesn’t intend to inspire conversations about the supernatural or open a debate about religious connotations with The Next. It’s about the journey of a woman who tries to put right what she did wrong while living, to find some sense of justice and redemption, and her self-proclaimed right to a beatific and worthy death.
The Next will be released on October 18.
Note from the author: The review for The Next was based on an advanced reader’s copy provided by Netgalley and the publisher.