CBR 2.0: Book 5, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

11Jan10

I’m a history geek, but in my not so humble opinion, the older the better. This is why my background is in ancient history, instead of American history. I’ve joked on more than one occasion that America isn’t old enough to have history. (I do believe Eddie Izzard agrees with me: “I’m from England; that’s where history comes from.”) Despite my own arrogance, however, I’ve always been sort of fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials in the last 1600s. Brutal and scary and really quite ridiculous, all the shit that went down in that little town, all because of a few possibly deranged or possibly really bored little girls. When I came across this book, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, it piqued my interest, and I bought it.

I’ve told at least three different people that I want them to read this book. This has more to do with the fact I want someone to pick it apart with me than with it being a real, wholehearted recommendation. I have some reservations about it, but overall I think that the things I like outweigh my little nitpicks about it.

I’m getting ahead of myself here, however. Let me tell you about it first. The book centers on a young woman named Connie, who is a soon-to-be doctorate student at Harvard. She’s just been accepted for candidacy (and this is where I had to put the book down for about a week, because I started it just as I was getting ready to finish my own grad school applications, and it made me nervous) at the end of a Spring semester, and has been charged by her hippie trippy mom to go clean out her grandmother’s house in Marblehead. She has a strained relationship with her mom, a roommate/best friend with the same name as me, and a dog called Arlo.

What I enjoyed the most about this book was the characterization. I really thought that I wasn’t going to like Connie at first. She seems a little too in her own head and rigid and rational (I swear this has nothing to do with my own in my head-ness. Promise). But the author, Katherine Howe, really gets her characters, and writes them well. Character development is always a big plus in my book, and I wallow in it when done well, as it is here. Developments in the characters, especially Connie, are foreshadowed subtly, so when they start adding up towards the end of the book, you can look back and see they were there the whole time (with one possible exception). Secondary characters like Liz (the best friend) and Grace (Connie’s mom) (and it struck me as a bit weird that two characters in this book have my name) (Grace is my middle name) feel just as organic and thought out and real as Connie does.

The villain becomes a touch ridiculous at the end, but even that is an interesting dichotomy. Even Connie’s acceptance of things that her rational self would and should scoff at feels realistic to me.

Now, my nitpick. The plot. I can’t decide if I think that it’s a bit weak, or that Ms. Howe merely foreshadows everything WAY TOO HARD, or if it’s just that I’m that smart. It’s probably a bit of all three. I didn’t find much of anything about the story itself here to be particularly surprising. In fact, there was more than one instance when I thought something had already happened when it actually happened, because I’d known it was coming.

However, I didn’t really mind this. I realized it was there and felt myself sort of wanting to mind the weakness in the plot, but I think the fun and the characters made up for it, because I could hardly put the book down. Also, I sympathize with a writer who’s aces at characters and detail, and a bit weak in the plot area, as that’s where my shortcomings seem to be as well.

I’d be interested to see if Howe’s plot-skillz catch up to her characterization, so I hope that she publishes more.

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