Published by Delacorte Press, Random House on October 27, 2015
Genres: historical, mystery
Pages: 496 pages
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From Jennifer Donnelly, the critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of A Northern Light and Revolution, comes a mystery about dark secrets, dirty truths, and the lengths to which people will go for love and revenge. For fans of Elizabeth George and Libba Bray, These Shallow Graves is the story of how much a young woman is willing to risk and lose in order to find the truth.
Jo Montfort is beautiful and rich, and soon—like all the girls in her class—she’ll graduate from finishing school and be married off to a wealthy bachelor. Which is the last thing she wants. Jo dreams of becoming a writer—a newspaper reporter like the trailblazing Nellie Bly.
Wild aspirations aside, Jo’s life seems perfect until tragedy strikes: her father is found dead. Charles Montfort shot himself while cleaning his pistol. One of New York City’s wealthiest men, he owned a newspaper and was a partner in a massive shipping firm, and Jo knows he was far too smart to clean a loaded gun.
The more Jo hears about her father’s death, the more something feels wrong. Suicide is the only logical explanation, and of course people have started talking, but Jo’s father would never have resorted to that. And then she meets Eddie—a young, smart, infuriatingly handsome reporter at her father’s newspaper—and it becomes all too clear how much she stands to lose if she keeps searching for the truth. But now it might be too late to stop.
The past never stays buried forever. Life is dirtier than Jo Montfort could ever have imagined, and this time the truth is the dirtiest part of all.
If you enjoy historical fiction with a spunky female lead, some romance, and a murder mystery thrown in for good measure, you might want to pick up Jennifer Donnelly’s latest book, These Shallow Graves.
I admit, I was lured in by the promise of a spunky female lead in this case – a girl who secretly dreams of being a writer and defying societal expectations! – ’cause that’s my jam all the time. In turn-of-the-century America, no less! (An aside: my love for American history has been totally revitalized by the release of the soundtrack for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical, by the way. And this is … a century later! Where’s my Revolutionary War YA when I need it?)
Anyway. Ahem. Back to business!
Despite the spunky female lead, while I liked many aspects of These Shallow Graves, I didn’t connect with it emotionally in the way that I wanted to. The book felt more plot-driven than character-driven to me, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – I just know that I’m always more interested in character development in any given story. This is to say that while I was always very interested in Jo’s doings – i.e., her attempts to figure out who murdered her father and unravel the greater mystery connected to his death! her travels with Eddie, handsome reporter love interest extraordinaire, around New York City! – I didn’t feel invested in her as a character. Which was super weird, because I’m normally pretttty darn invested in female heroines who are torn between their family’s expectations and their own desires for a different existence (in Jo’s case, to be a reporter like Nellie Bly). But in Jo’s case? Not so much.
I think part of this is because I felt like I was being told rather than shown how deeply Jo cared for certain characters – like her father, for example, who’s murdered at the beginning of the book – without having much of a chance to see those feelings unfold in the narrative. (I know you’re telling me she loves him! But her confusion over her father’s death drives the entire story, so I really wanted more of an emotional connection to him.) This was also true of Jo’s relationship with Eddie Gallagher, the young reporter whose help she enlists in the hunt for her father’s killer. I know in theory why they like each other – they read the same books! they share the same ideals! they find each other reasonably attractive! – but I never felt like I was watching them develop greater emotional intimacy or anything. When Jo becomes fast friends with Fay, a young woman who’s a thief, again, their instant connection happens that quickly – they have a conversation, Fay rescues Jo, and bam, they’re best buddies. I wanted more! More time for that relationship to unfold, more conversation, more feelings. You know I love a good female friendship, and I was sadly dissatisfied with this one.
Even though I don’t really read for plot, I was also disappointed in how easy it was to figure out the mystery in this one in particular. This made reading a little frustrating at times. While I understand Jo’s motivations for taking action, plot-wise, I also wanted her to figure out things much more quickly than she did. View Spoiler » Did you notice that confiding in your uncle has accomplished nothing? Does he seem super shifty to you and keep on telling you to stop investigating this? THERE’S A REASON. And, okay, I know that Jo is super protected and shielded by her family and has been raised to trust authority figures, but it was still frustrating from my end. « Hide Spoiler
One final thing that troubled me about These Shallow Graves: View Spoiler » My disclaimer: still trying to think through this, so apologies if it’s not coherent. So, throughout the book, Jo’s constantly drawing parallels between the plight of white women, regardless of class, and slaves. When she realizes Fay might become a prostitute: “She’s not a slave, to be bought and sold;” “He doesn’t own you. You’re not his slave,” “she’s [Fay’s] a human being, you can’t buy and sell her. That’s slavery. Have you no sense of morality?” When she thinks about her own marriage: it’s “a business deal, and she was the commodity that had been traded.” And I … have some feelings about this? While on the one hand this might be representative of the way that first-wave feminists thought about things like marriage, I didn’t feel like the book complicated this idea any further, i.e., conveying that the experience of a white upper class woman with an arranged marriage is … not the same as that of someone who was enslaved. Race doesn’t come up in the narrative, I think, until the big spoiler at the end – that Jo’s family’s wealth emerged from the slave trade and that her father, uncle, and family friends were complicit in continuing the slave trade after the war. And when Jo does think about the slave trade, after the fact, she understands it through the oppression and victimization of white characters in the text: “How many people had they enslaved? Wives and husbands torn apart. Children ripped from their parents’ arms. She thought about another stolen child – Fay. She remembered the expression on her face, and on Eleanor’s, when they realized they were mother and daughter. Sixteen long years it had taken Eleanor Owens to find her daughter. Poor Stephen Smith never did.” And … this is kind of what bothers me about the book: that slavery is there in the background of the text, but that it’s used primarily to think about the oppression of white characters along the lines of gender and class. I don’t know. Totally open to being called out on misreading this, by the way. Like I said, I’m still trying to think through it. « Hide Spoiler
Here’s what I did like about the book: I liked some of the scenes around the marriage market in the book, and Jo’s slow realization that her seemingly perfect engagement will kill her spirit and stifle her curiosity. I liked the way the novel distinguishes between gender roles both within a given social class and between social classes (Jo’s ability to navigate the city vs. Bram’s, the man she’s supposed to marry; Jo’s relationship to the city v. Fay’s). I also liked the way that Jo’s family motto – “fac quod faciendum est” / “do what must be done” – was constantly repeated in the narrative, until it transforms into something sinister by the end of the novel. I liked the shout-out to Edith Wharton! I liked many of the secondary characters – Oscar, Sarah, even Grandmamma – enough to wish that I’d gotten more time with them, too.
All things considered, I enjoyed reading These Shallow Graves, but I wasn’t blown away by it. I’d still definitely think about reading Donnelly’s other historical fiction, though? I’ve heard good things about it. I just felt like this book skimped on character development in favor of crafting an intricate mystery. And as a reader, I prefer feelings in abundance.
Is anyone else looking forward to this one? Have you read it? If so, what did you think?
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.