Book Review: THE LAST TO SEE ME by M Dressler

M Dressler puts a fresh, supernatural spin on California history in The Last to See Me, which imagines how the vengeful ghost of an early 20th century servant might react to a 21st century town hostile to the “dirty” spirits of its past. The novel is rich with historical detail, but it’s also compulsively readable, making its plot holes and unanswered questions feel eminently forgivable.

You can read my full review below.


9781510720671

The Last to See Me by M Dressler

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  • publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
  • publication date: September 5, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-5107-2067-7
  • length: 272 pages

Ever notice how historical fiction lovers–myself included–are usually obsessed with narratives about royalty and the upper class? There are endless novels of Tudor intrigue, Victorian stiff upper lips, and Gilded Age gaudiness, but little about the lives of ordinary people–you know, how most of us would have actually lived.

It’s good, then, that The Last to See Me tackles this gap: Emma Rose Finnis is an unlucky Irish-American girl trapped in an unpleasant, hard-scrapping life as a scullery maid in Benito, a coastal California timber town. The Lambry family are timber magnates who may as well be local royalty, and when Quint Lambry sets his eyes on orphaned nobody Emma, Mrs. Lambry decides to intervene, paying Emma handsomely to leave town and work as a maid for an isolated lighthouse keeper’s family.

But Emma and Quint continue their affair in secret, hurtling towards a shattering tragedy that gets Emma killed. After death, Emma becomes a vengeful ghost who haunts the town–and the Lambry family–for a century, and when a wealthy Silicon Valley couple seeks to buy the Lambry ancestral home, Emma’s violent reaction forces the real estate agent to call in a ghost hunter to purge her.

Dressler’s world is fascinating, though I hesitate to call it complex, since its mechanics are mostly left to the imagination. Modern-day Benito, California, seems to exist in a California that’s exactly the same as our own in every way except that people accept the presence of ghosts–and the need for the “cleaners” who purge them–without question.

It’s an interesting idea, and one I wish had been further developed, but since the story is told from Emma’s old-fashioned and unreliable perspective, there are quite a few puzzle pieces missing from the table. Sometimes characters feel shoehorned in to fulfill a plot necessity, and there’s also a subplot about a character who may or may not be a ghost that left me scratching my head.

Still, it’s hard to be bitter, since Dressler’s writing is excellent in so many other ways. The Last to See Me balances detail and suspense as skillfully as I’ve ever seen it done: Dressler has done her research, and it shows, but she also doesn’t bore the reader with irrelevant facts and old-timey speak. In fact, I found this book impossible to put down, finishing it in two sittings, even though I was initially skeptical that I’d enjoy it.

That the book got its hooks in me so quickly–literally from the first page–is especially amazing considering how slowly the story moves; it’s not like Emma is in a rush to tell all, considering she’s been undead for a hundred years already.

But Dressler draws tension from the moral ambiguity of ghost “cleaning,” an act that Emma is understandably frightened of, seeing as it will destroy her spirit forever. Philip Pratt, the ghost cleaner, insists in that ghosts are evil and takes pride in dispelling them, angering Emma…and the angrier Emma gets, the more she lashes out at the living humans around her, causing you to suspect that Pratt, though arrogant, might be right after all.

The Last to See Me is a tremendously enjoyable book about one of the heaviest topics of all: death, and life afterwards. How lucky we are that Dressler handles it with nuance, empathy, and skill. 4/5 stars.


My copy of The Last to See Me came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 1.19.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week was an absolute fiction palooza for me, and in putting together this list, I noticed that my tastes have run toward the darker and weirder of late. Hmm.

Let’s dive in!


9780143127550Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

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why I’m excited: I adored Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere (my review)so when this book was on deep sale at Barnes & Noble, I couldn’t resist. Everything I Never Told You is Ng’s critically acclaimed debut about a Chinese American family whose daughter, Lydia, is found dead in a lake.

Bonus: this book is on its way to becoming a movie, which is perhaps part of why Barnes & Noble had it out on the sale tables!

9781501112331In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

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why I’m excited: This book is yet another book purchase I can attribute to my abiding love of thrillers, especially ones with a literary edge, and most especially ones whose tension hinges on femininity and sexism. I don’t know much about the plot, but based on its marketing, it’s going to be right up my alley.

Another bonus: Like Everything I Never Told You, this book is also being adapted into a movie!

9780307341556Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

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why I’m excited: It feels a little bit like cheating to put a book I’ve already read in my bookbag, but Gillian Flynn is one of my favorite authors of all time and I very stupidly purged my copies of Sharp Objects and Gone Girl between freshman and sophomore year. Sharp Objects is a creepy crime thriller about murders of young girls in a small town full of some incredibly toxic secrets. After snagging this on sale, I’m just happy to have one of my precious babies back on my bookshelf again. (Regretfully, I still haven’t replaced Gone Girl yet, and I have yet to read Flynn’s other novel, Dark Places.)

Yet another bonus (and I promise this is the last one): I absolutely cannot wait to see the HBO adaptation of this book, which premieres this summer!

9781936787579A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

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why I’m excited: I’m trying to do better about reading works by authors outside the U.S. and U.K., and A Loving, Faithful Animal is by an Australian author, Josephine Rowe. It’s a novel about an Australian soldier who returns from conscripted service in the Vietnam War and the trauma and healing his family endures, which sounds really interesting to me. It’s been also well-reviewed, its cover design is lovely, and it’s quite a small, short book–always pluses. I’m hoping it will be a bracing palate-cleanser that I can squeeze in between some of the longer books on my to-read list.

9780374100261The Answers by Catherine Lacey

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Why I’m excited: I don’t quite understand the premise of this novel–a woman who is flat-broke from medical bills ends up being paid to participate in an experiment to uncover the perfect recipe for a romantic relationship, I think? –but I don’t need to be clear on everything to know that it will be delightfully bizarre. Part of the premise is that the protagonist suffers from chronic pain–something I’ve dealt with for years–so I’m excited for that aspect, as well.

9781510720671The Last to See Me by M Dressler

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Why I’m excited: This novel is a ghost story set in a California mansion, and while ghost stories are not usually my thing, the marketing compares Dressler’s style to Kazuo Ishiguro’s, which will sell me on a book every time. (Maybe that makes me a sucker?) I did really love Larissa Pham’s recent ghost story, too, so maybe I’m less averse to ghosts than I think. This feels like the riskiest book I acquired this week, but at least it’s a library loan, so I’m not out any money if it turns out to not be my thing.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!