Francis Meredith is sitting on a bench during lunch break when he first meets Jessica. He immediately knows something's not quite right when he sees her walking across the grass in Victoria Beckham's zebra dress on a very cold February day. She sits down on the end of the bench and is shocked when Francis offers her a sip of his hot tea. The girl tells Francis that she is dead and that no one is able to see her or hear her. Except Francis. The girl who reveals herself to be Jessica Fry has been dead for a year but she doesn't remember the circumstances of her death. Francis and Jessica agree to meet again after school.
They meet and decide to go to Francis's home on Alma Road. Jessica is now dressed for winter - she just has to think about what she wants to wear and it appears on her body. Francis takes Jessica to his special room upstairs at the top of his house. This room is filled with Francis's drawing of fashion designs as well as a sewing machine, bolts of material, a table covered in paper patterns, dressmaker's dummy and a couch. On a set of shelves are at least fifty dolls, each dressed in a different outfit that Francis has created. Francis explains to Jessica that he's doing a history of fashion.
Jessica tells Francis that she does not remember how she died but that she knew she was dead. She was in her third floor hospital room and saw her body covered by a sheet. Despite feeling calm, Jessica felt there was something missing. She has been returning every night for the past year to her room in case she has missed something. Neither knows why Francis can see her while others cannot. Francis and Jessica discover they have several things in common including their love of fashion,they are the same age and are only children to single mothers.
As the days pass, Francis and Jessica spend all their days together. Jessica goes to school with Francis, helping him in each of his classes. They spend time after school in Francis's special room on the top floor of his home. To those who can't see Jessica, Francis appears to be a loner who doesn't talk to anyone. Francis begins to be bullied by Quentin Howard, a boy in his class who knows about Francis and the dolls.
Meanwhile Francis's mother, Grace becomes more and more concerned about the amount of time Francis is spending alone. Since his mother can't see Jessica, she believes he comes home every day and spends time alone in the attic. Worried after hearing Francis talking to himself, Grace suggests that Francis meet a new neighbour's son, Andy who will starting at Francis's school, John Felton the following week. Andy doesn't want to attend school and Francis's mother is hoping he can help Andy.
It turns out Andy is a girl named Andi Campion, a stocky, redhead who called Thug by her mother. Andi's mother explains that it is short for "Thuglette", a name she gave her daughter because she was always getting into fights when she was younger. Francis takes Andi to his bedroom where Jessica is waiting. Both Francis and Jessica are shocked when Andi is able to see and talk to Jessica. They reveal Jessica's situation to Andi who thinks she's very cool. Andi is curious about Jessica, especially about her not remembering the circumstances of her death. Both Francis's mother and Mrs. Campion are astonished that Francis and Andi seem to get along well.
Andi reluctantly agrees to go to school as long as Francis is with her. However, Francis warns her that he might not be the best person to hang with, telling her he is viewed as "different" and therefore is not popular. He takes Andi to his fashion room in the attic, showing her his creations. Andi is nonplussed because she tells Francis she has an uncle in the fashion industry who makes lots of money. At school the principal agrees to Francis's suggestion that Andi be placed in his class. With a little help from Jessica during math class, Andi is able to succeed. She also manages to save Francis from the bully whose been tormenting him. The three friends spend many happy days together. Andi believes that Jessica show know how she died, so she arranges for her mother to take them to the village where Jessica lived. They locate her grave and convince Jessica to visit her home. When she does this, she does not return. Frances decides to visit Jessica's house and meets her aunt, Joanna Barfield who is a counsellor and tells him to call anytime.
Jessica does not return for days, leaving Francis and Andi upset. When she does finally show up she's wearing her hospital gown and can't remember exactly what happened. Every time the three discuss how Jessica might have died she fades. Meanwhile Francis's reputation for working wonders spreads because of Andi's transformation into a good student and a girl who has started to wear skirts. This leads to a request by Roland Boyle's mother to have Francis help talk her son into returning to school at St. Saviour's. Francis reluctantly agrees and when he visits Roland he discovers that he too can see Jessica. The group of four now sets out to discover what they might have in common to lead them each to be able to see Jessica when others can not. Little do they know that what links them will help save the life of a girl in distress and free Jessica from being stuck as a ghost.
Friends For Life is a simple story about three teens who are considering suicide but are saved by an unexpected relationship with a ghost. That ghost who succeeded in killing herself, has been sent to save them as well as an unknown fourth person. The title of the novel has a double meaning - not only friends for life in the usual sense of being friends forever but also friends who save the lives of others contemplating suicide. Friends For Life explores the factors that often lead teens to consider suicide and what kinds of interventions might help in preventing suicide.
Francis, Andi and Roland do not fit in with their peers - each of them is very different. Francis loves clothing and fashion and dresses dolls. Andi has a body type that is different from the tall, slim, blonde type promoted as "beautiful" by the fashion industry, film and media, while Roland with his heavy-set large frame also has a different body type considered unattractive for a boy.
In the novel's exploration of suicide, Jessica tells how she became very depressed after the death of her mother and then her grandmother. Although her aunt and uncle were, as she described it, "nice" this was not enough. It is the character Roland however who puts into words exactly how a suicidal teenager thinks.
"It's funny, isn't it," said Roland, "how people being nice doesn't help when you feel like that. You know they want to help, you know they're trying to help, but it's like they're in another world. They have no idea how you're really feeling. Or what to do about it."
"You can act as if you think it matters whether you've done any schoolwork or what you eat or what you wear, but in the end...the pretending is such an effort, and you get so tired, that all you really want is for it to stop. For everything to stop."
Both Jessica and Roland state that once the idea of ending things takes hold, it becomes very difficult to ignore. Francis states that more than anything teens in this situation want to be like their friends, but find they cannot. "And that's what gets to you in the end, isn't it?" It was Francis who was speaking now. "The being different. You want so much to be like everyone else but...He looked sympathetically across at Roland as he spoke. "You know it's never going to happen. You're always going to be different. With you it's your weight; with me it was all this."
The friendship between the three teens and Jessica changes their perspective on life and helps them to consider the things they might have done to help themselves. Francis and Jessica realize that not telling anyone how they were feeling, was a mistake. Francis wonders why he didn't try to tell Quentin Howard to stop teasing him. When Roland is teased at school by Dermot about his size he finds that the support of his friends and the school administration has changed how he views the teasing. It no longer matters and he wonders "why on earth he hadn't told Dermot to leave, or simply walked away." "The thing he had most feared would happen had happened, but for some reason it had been okay. Perhaps it was because there were people around him who said it was not okay; perhaps that was what made the difference. Or maybe it was simply the realization that someone telling him he was fat wasn't that important. It didn't mean anything."
Jessica the ghost helps Francis, Andi and Roland understand there were alternatives to the choice she made and to prevent them from making the same mistake. Roland determines that her continued presence as a ghost means there is someone else she is meant to help. Eventually Jessica discovers that person is another student at John Felton who is being bullied by fellow students. Like Jessica, it was a series of traumatic events that led to life becoming unbearable for this student.
At the end of the novel, Francis gains more insight about suicide and how people come to this point as he reads through the letters that he receives after he and his friends intervened to help the student. Many of the people were not starving or in chronic pain but instead felt they were "different" and that they felt alone. This leads Francis to wonder why being different is so painful. Jessica's Aunt Jo tells him that it may be that some people feel things more deeply than others and this combined with sometime traumatic in their lives leaves them vulnerable.
Friends For Life is a sensitive treatment of youth suicide filled with realistic characters who form a supportive, caring relationship with each other, demonstrating the power friendship can have on transforming the lives of those around us. The novel ends on a hopeful note with Francis feeling more positive about being different and coming to the conclusion that life can change very quickly. Francis discovers that he has learned to accept what makes him different and that has helped those around him accept him too. "And
the strange thing was that, now that he didn't really care what other
people thought, most them seemed quite happy to let him be as different
as he liked." He recognizes that his life has changed quickly over the span of a few months. Life could "appear so impossible at one moment, and so full of hope and possibilities the next." That change can bring about opportunities for unexpected happiness. This is the lesson Francis's unexpected meeting with Jessica taught him - "how much fun there was to be had in life, how full of opportunities it was, how many chances it gave for enjoyment."
Friends For Life is highly recommended. Originally published in the United Kingdom as Jessica's Ghost. Andrew Noriss has stated he normally writes comedy and the story told in Friends For Life was not the usual stuff he writes. Over the course of ten years his story took shape. Andrew writes that he at times, like many of us, has experienced difficult times and is grateful to the "Jessicas" in his life "whose mere presence was a constant reminder that, even at its darkest, life if full of possibilities and that, yes, miracles can happen."
Friends For Life by Andrew Noriss
New York: Scholastic Books Inc. 2015