As Fun As Cotton Candy, and Just As Substantial – The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato

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I like a good conspiracy theory – not because I buy into them, but because I like seeing how others attempt to rationalize an idea that isn’t always widely accepted. It’s interesting, seeing how they link fact and speculation and sometimes (more like oftentimes) outright lies to form a concept that’s supposed to be credible as “reality”. A lot of conspiracy theories don’t get very far; more often than not it’s easy to do some fact-checking and have the whole thing fall apart at the seams. Sometimes, though, I run into one that makes me tilt my head and nod in approval at how everything seems real, even though I know it isn’t. Those are the ones that are the most fun, because it takes a little work to figure them out and separate fact from fiction.

A conspiracy theory lies at the heart of Catie Disabato’s The Ghost Network. Set in contemporary Chicago, the novel is presented as a work of investigative journalism written by one Cyrus Archer; Disabato claims to have “inherited…a polished draft” of the manuscript from him and edited and updated said draft before finally publishing it as the novel itself. Archer’s work focuses on the disappearance of super-famous pop star Molly Metropolis just before a major concert in Chicago, and an attempt by two young women to track her down. However, trying to find Molly is just the beginning, because it leads the two young women (and Archer and Disabato) down a veritable rabbit hole that could lead them to the answers they so desperately want to find – or to their deaths.

Now, the first thing potential readers need to know about this book is that they should ignore the commercial blurb calling it “Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl for adults”. On one hand, the comparison does not make sense because the story of The Ghost Network has absolutely no connection to the story of Fangirl. The latter is about a fanfic writer, not the fan of a music celebrity. I understand the overlap, since both such persons can be called “fangirls” (if they happen to identify as female), but the kind of fangirl suggested by the title of Rowell’s book is completely different from the kind of fangirl(s) who star as the protagonists in Disabato’s novel.

On the other hand, the suggestion that Fangirl is not for adults is utterly wrong. By suggesting that it is, It implies that the blurb writer or whoever they answer to has not read either book, making a surface comparison based solely on titles and maybe a short three-sentence summary of both novels. This pisses me off in several ways, but I won’t get into that because this review isn’t the place for that kind of grumbling.

However, if readers manage to make it past that terrible blurb and make the decision to pick up the book, they might themselves wonder just what in the world they got into. This confusion has nothing to do with Disabato’s writing: it’s pretty solid, as far as these things go, and absorbing enough that the reader can probably make it several chapters into the book before realizing what’s wrong with it. Honestly, I’d be happy to read more of Disabato’s work, provided the issues I found in this one are fixed.

And just what are those issues, precisely? Well, for one, the characters are really ridiculously bland. By this I mean they don’t read like actual, real people – more like caricatures of people, stuck into a story and kind of just moving along with it. There are moments when they actually do stand out, but for the most part they’re forgettable.

The only character who isn’t forgettable is Molly Metropolis. It’s not just that she’s a Lady Gaga-style pop star; it’s also that she strikes me as a genuinely fascinating person, sharply intelligent and complex. (Incidentally I feel the same way about Lady Gaga, so there’s very definitely some overlap of interest there.) I like that she doesn’t let those around her really get to know her; she holds everyone at arm’s length even while making them feel that they’re close to her and know her really well. People like that are intriguing, and the fact that so many characters describe Molly in those terms makes her intriguing to me, as well – and, therefore, a standout character. However, since she’s the novel’s MacGuffin, she doesn’t really spend a lot of time on the page as herself, instead of as this figure other people talk about, so the reader doesn’t have the pleasure of really getting to know her and understanding her. I suppose that was the whole point of her character, but I do wish there’d been a chance for the reader to get to know her in her own terms, instead of through the eyes of those around her.

Another problem I have with this novel, and which others might find problematic, is how it tries to create a conspiracy theory without giving it the appropriate amount of heft. I suppose I can put this down to Disabato’s choice of a fairly obscure philosophy around which to build the novel’s central conspiracy, but I also think it’s also down to the novel’s antagonists. I have absolutely no problem with the identity of those antagonists, but I do have major issues with their motivations. I won’t spell it out, but there is something so very, terribly shallow about their reasons for becoming the “bad guys” in this story; it’s so very reminiscent of high school politics that once it was revealed in the novel, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at it. The conspiracy theory at the heart of the story is also not as world-shattering or world-changing as I think it could be. It tries, or at least Disabato tries to make it come off as world-changing, but it just doesn’t. This could be a deal-breaker for some readers, who just won’t see the point of the whole thing because the stakes aren’t nearly high enough.

Overall, The Ghost Network is a three-star read that’s very much like cotton candy: fun while it lasts, but not very substantial. Disabato’s writing itself isn’t all that problematic, and the plot chugs along pretty quickly, but everything else – specifically the characters and the conspiracy theory at the heart of the story – substantially weakens what might otherwise have been a really fun thriller.

The Ghost Network is available on Amazon in a variety of formats; click on the title to find them all.

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