What We’re Reading on Vacation: “Ghosts of Harvard”

Francesca Serritella, Ghosts of Harvard
Images via Francesca Serritella.

It’s about that time for vacation, and I’ve got my stack of beach reads all ready, because what is a vacation if not toes in sand, book in hand?

I’m most excited to read Ghosts of Harvard, a first novel by nearby Chester County native, Francesca Serritella. Francesca, a Great Valley graduate and New York Times bestselling author and columnist, skillfully winds together elements of an intellectual thriller, a ghost story, and a family mystery.

I was able to chat with Francesca about her exciting first novel. Francesca is a Harvard grad (graduated cum laude), and the hallowed halls remained her inspiration for her character’s story.

“I felt Harvard was a place where the legacy of the past and the expectations of the future close in on you. Harvard’s founding predates our nation’s by over a century, every building is a memorial to a famous name. It’s inspiring but incredibly daunting,” she explains.

“Each student feels the pressure to make good on the promise of an extraordinary future, but they’re also just young adults trying to figure themselves out. Combined with the great privilege and luck of getting in, it feels like you’ve got the golden ticket—if only you don’t blow it. That duality of potential, to be a launchpad or a precipice, inspired the novel,” she shared.

Within the novel (no spoilers) comes talk of slavery, and how Harvard seemed to gloss over it until very recently. Francesca called attention to that fact, making that a strong theme in Ghosts of Harvard.

“I learned of Harvard’s history of slavery maybe a year or so before it was made fully public in 2016, thanks to the work of a single professor, Sven Beckert, and thirty-two of his students, who began investigating the topic while I was still an undergrad,” Francesca notes.

“I had already written a draft of the novel but completely rewrote it to include this history. The book is all about how our narratives about the past shape our understanding of the present and our potential in the future, but those narratives can be mistaken, cherry-picked, or myth,” Francesca expressed. “This is true of our personal histories and our national history. We often don’t know whose voices are missing from the stories that are told, and yet that can make all the difference.

Mental illness was another theme in the book that the main character, Cady, and her family had to struggle with daily. Cady, as well as the reader, wonders about these ‘ghosts of Harvard.’ Are they real and how did these two topics intertwine?

“To me, all ghosts are psychological,” Francesca states. “And we all carry voices in our heads. Maybe it’s your mother’s, a cherished teacher, maybe some jerk you went on one date with. My main character is haunted before she gets to Harvard—haunted by the what-if questions surrounding her brother.”

“Whenever we go through a grave loss or other life-altering events, we create a parallel universe in our mind ‘if my loved one were still here…’ or ‘if I had made a different choice…,” she says. “Those alternate realities can speak loudly in our minds, to comfort or taunt us. So, it wasn’t such a leap for me to link the psychological to the supernatural.”

If you are looking for a great beach/poolside read, you’ll find it in Ghosts of Harvard, by Francesca Serritella. Even in the heat of summer, you’ll get chills.

And if her name sounds familiar, Francesca’s mother is Philly favorite Lisa Scottoline, author of crime and mystery novels, and a whole host of hilarious and heartfelt non-fiction books that they have co-written. Anyone else been to the Big Book Club Party?

Have you read Ghosts of Harvard? What did you think?


Francesca Serritella talks about her debut novel, GHOSTS OF HARVARD, in which a Harvard freshman seeks to unravel the mystery of her brother’s suicide on that campus the previous year. Francesca talks about her own years at Harvard, her research into mental illness and its effect on families, and the ways in which she used mystery and positive emotional moments to engage readers.

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