Although narrator Ned Conti, a refugee from the Georgetown University doctoral history program, is academically astute and perceptive to place details, he seems almost willfully obtuse about the two mysteries that occupy the center of this novel. In the first, Ned is hired by a priest to find historical records on a long-dead Brooklyn nun who may be worthy of canonization, but can locate no significant documentation of the woman’s life. In the second, a poltergeist of indeterminate identity haunts Ned’s Brooklyn apartment, and her motivations remain unclear, in spite of her sporadic rearrangement of his furniture.
It is Ned’s responsibility to explain these phenomena. Instead, he is preoccupied by thoughts of his former lover, a beautiful Creole wreck named Antoinette, who lives in New Orleans, the city Ned left, heartbroken, a decade before. Ned’s choice between reconciling with or forgetting Antoinette is the most interesting strain in Madeleine’s Ghost, which is really a charming—if conventional—love story about a distressed beauty and her unlikely hero. To give away any more details would ruin the conclusion, but suffice it to say that certain of Antoinette’s ancestors are deceased.
Girardi’s stylish prose camouflages the superficial, signifying quality of his characters; only gradually will it become apparent that the doctor is Jewish, the German-Lutheran is uptight, the Cajun lover is hot-blooded, the black teen-agers are gangstas, the Gypsies are otherworldly, the Californians are vegetarians—that effectively all the book’s principals are unmodified stock types, speaking lines they have spoken before. And while Girardi’s cities are meticulously mapped, they are not vividly imagined. Brooklyn is recognizable from late-night TV reruns, New Orleans from big-screen thrillers.
Still, Girardi can make a stale image seem deceptively fresh, and his deft handling of worn material rescues the novel from otherwise certain pulp status. His description of the New York City twilight is a salient example, with its “marvelous” light “the color of longing and nostalgia, the devil’s old melancholy, the color of a woman’s lips as you are about to kiss them at midnight beneath the neon of a deserted bar in a city you don’t know well.”
In Madeleine’s Ghost, though, most everything is familiar, and the author’s conscientious avoidance of startling material could explain why the novel is not particularly thrilling. Even the first-person narrator does not sound engaged by the events that befall him; even the present-tense approach fails to lend Ned’s bored tone an edge. In the end, the novel’s mysteries are disposed of through straightforward, single-minded blocks of exposition.
Perhaps the greatest mystery in Madeleine’s Ghost, then, is why Girardi chose such a roundabout way of telling a fairly simple love story. Ned himself is too lovesick to pay serious attention to the supernatural—at one point, he even turns a blind eye to an empty tomb that winks at the reader from the page. There is some satisfaction to be garnered from Girardi’s recombination of set variables, their facile arrangement and solution, but his ghosts are best laid to rest.