I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of this book, so I will not quote, just comment generally.
Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery by Mary Amato initially intrigued me because of the title, then the description — the lives, or rather deaths, of the occupants of Westminster Cemetery are upended by the arrival of a new resident, a “Modern” girl called Lacy. She decides things here are too boring, too strict, and too sad, and suggests an Open Mic Night to cheer everyone up. Little does she know that this has ramifications far beyond a simple night of fun.
This novel tells an entertaining story in the form of a two-act play, which I found an interesting choice. It works, to an extent. I feel that while the form allows for some quick, convenient jumping from one character’s mind to another’s, it also allows Amato to be rather… not lazy, exactly, but perhaps lax in following the writing adage “show, don’t tell.” Amato tells us a lot, rather than letting us glean for ourselves. Many of the “stage directions” are asides in which Amato speaks directly to us, commenting on what we are seeing. This can be amusing, but — and I never thought I would say this — it seems like she breaks the fourth wall too much. As far as I can tell, much of this telling-not-showing, fourth-wall-breaking is just Amato’s narrative voice, which is certainly competent. It just doesn’t entirely work for me. I honestly kind of felt Amato is talking down to the audience, which is a sensation I often have in young adult literature. So that is a shame.
The cast of characters is decent and eclectic. Each person is different, though not given much depth. However, there is a nice layer of realism with the appearance of several real-life people: Edgar Allan Poe (whose grave has made this particular cemetery famous), his wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law Maria. Their characterizations seem mostly accurate, though for me, Poe verges on being a bit of a caricature of himself.
I quite liked Lacy, a bright, bold girl just trying to make her existence (and everyone else’s in the cemetery) a little brighter. She is spunky and smart, and her interactions with Sam — my other favorite — are cute and frustrating all at once. Other stand-out characters are Poe (despite my issues with his portrayal, I have to like him at least a bit!), Mrs. Steele (who, given more depth, could have been a great take on a mean Minerva McGonagall or something), Virginia (I enjoyed the commentary on “mean girls” and the complex bond she and Lacy had), and Raven (a great touch). I just wish they had more dimensions, and that the love triangle — such as it is — was left out. (But my love triangle rant will have to wait for another post.)
The best parts of this story are actually when the subplot, not the main plot, is given the spotlight. Lacy initially appears in the cemetery without having any idea how she died, and her desire to remember, not matter how tragic, gives us the most compelling emotional moments of the book. The visits from her still-living sister Olivia — significantly nicknamed Liv — are genuinely touching. We see the realistic ramifications of Lacy’s sudden death and how her loss has impacted her family. The book here offers some pretty mature material: mild family discord, grief, guilt, addiction, and depression. As the details of Lacy’s death are slowly revealed to us, we see that this thus-far rather lighthearted take on an afterlife can also handle the darker, sadder aspects of death. For these reasons, this book will not be for everyone, just more mature high-schoolers and older readers. (There is also some swearing that might put off younger readers — or at least their parents.)
In the end, Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery is an earnest effort to write a quirky, dark-humored Poe-inspired tale. The characters are decent, the writing passable, the love story charming. The plot and subplot kept my attention throughout. While this isn’t the greatest book ever, many high-schoolers will certainly enjoy this, particularly if they enjoy Poe stories or other spooky tales.
Overall rating: 7/10