Great Caesar's Ghost
What can I say about Great Caesar’s Ghost? Just when I was loathing it with all my heart, something would happen that I really liked. Just when I had decided it had gotten pretty good, something would happen that would make me want to scream with irritation. Irritation won out in the end.
The year is 1893. In life, Caesar Hawkins was a patent-medicine salesman, a fast-talker and a rogue, the creator of Great Caesar’s Celebrated Curative. But Caesar’s dead now. He refuses to go away, however, referring to his death as “the accident.” His son is Jed Hawkins, a handsome thirty-one year old who is trying to carry on the family business. Caesar constantly belittles Jed’s attempts to run the show without Caesar. He even refuses to tell Jed what is in the Curative and orders the supplies himself. That’s right, the ghost fills out the forms and sends them. In this book, “dead” seems to be synonymous with “invisible;” aside from that small handicap, Caesar is more or less unchanged.
Lovely Nixie Dengler is the daughter of an idealistic doctor who has dreams of turning Welcome Springs, Texas, into a resort. Nixie is unappreciated by her family and is the subject of gossip because she has never married. Nixie thinks that all men are untrustworthy dastards who only want one thing. The only being she allows herself to trust is her pet bird. Caesar sees Nixie and promptly decides that she and Jed are perfect for each other. He spends the rest of the novel throwing Jed and Nixie together and, when this doesn’t work, making condescending remarks about Jed’s lack of prowess with women.
I usually avoid novels with meddling matchmaker ghosts. I find them tedious. But I have to admit, the way Caesar’s shenanigans resulted in romance for all the secondary characters but not for Jed and Nixie was very amusing. Unfortunately, Caesar himself is an obnoxious, interfering loudmouth and I really wanted him to go into the Light, and soon. I clenched my teeth almost every time he intruded into the story.
Caesar’s attitude towards his son was hurtful and unkind, which made Jed into an object of pity. I don’t want my hero to be piteous. Jed had his moments of charm, but he also had moments when he displayed himself to be a nitwit, as when he lept into the water and then remembered that he didn’t know how to swim.
The small-town American setting is extremely well-drawn, the love scenes nice, and the scene in which we realize why Nixie is so fearful of men is poignant and sympathetic. However, too many annoying character flaws draw the reader out of the narrative.
I suspected from the beginning that I would have trouble respecting a heroine with a name like Nixie, and she spent most of the book confirming my suspicion. She’s such a dreary little victim, earnestly miserable and misused all the time. She tries and convicts Jed of being a love-’em-and-leave-’em guy within two minutes of meeting him, and spends the first half of the book denying her feelings for him. She became more sympathetic when I discovered the secret in her past that made her so mistrustful, but then she spent the rest of the book insisting that he leave and break her heart. There are lots of misunderstandings, some of which are Caesar’s fault, but most of which Nixie deliberately perpetrates on herself. It gets old.
Finally – and I almost hate to bring this point up – but Nixie’s relationship with William (her parakeet) is, uh, weird. The first time Jed overhears Nixie talking to William he thinks she’s with a lover. Sterling frequently shows William tugging at the ribbons on Nixie’s bodice or playing with her buttons while Nixie strokes his chest. At one point Jed watches them, noting, “their playing had a sensual quality that made Jed’s pulse quicken. He could imagine himself toying with those buttons …” Later, when William escapes and then returns, Jed observes “William huddled close to her neck as the two conversed in a secret language of coos and murmurs, like long lost-lovers.” Do I have the dirtiest mind in the universe? Possibly. I really cannot believe that this imagery is deliberate on the author’s part. On the other hand, well, what would you think?
To complete my confusion, the conclusion to this novel is clever and highly satisfying. So what can I say about Great Caesar’s Ghost? If you like Americana and ghost stories, you might enjoy this. But I had a page and a half of furious notes by the time I was halfway through this book, which is never a good sign. Unfortunately, so much is annoying that its strengths do little but convince me that Cynthia Sterling could have written a much better novel.