Sunday, August 7, 2011

Review: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2009

It's about: It's 1991, and Harvard PhD candidate Connie Goodwin has just passed her qualifying exams. She'd like to spend her summer doing research for her dissertation in Early American History, but her scatterbrained mother has convinced her to attend to a daughterly duty: cleaning her grandmother's house and preparing it for the real estate market. The house is centuries old and has been abandoned for the last twenty years; it doesn't even have electricity. On her first night in the creepy, ancient house, Connie finds a key tucked into an old family bible. Rolled up inside the shaft of the key is a tiny scrap of paper on which is written a name, Deliverance Dane. Connie sets out to learn what she can about this mysterious woman.

The story of Connie's 20th-century historical sleuthing is occasionally interrupted by "Interludes" that take us back in time, all the way back to the lives of Deliverance and family during and after the Salem Witch Trials.

I thought: I cannot imagine a more perfect summer read. The Physick Book has a great, quick-moving, exciting story. It took a while for me to let go of my criticisms (cliché characters, ho-hum prose, stilted dialogue) and just enjoy the ride, but once I settled in I really, really enjoyed this book.

I'm generally not that into supernatural stuff, but (for the most part) I thought it worked well in The Physick Book. The 1991 sections of the story were well-rooted in real life, and that made the spooky stuff even spookier. Plus I LOVED the setting, especially the short section that takes place in Widener Library, my former workplace. Oh, how I love New England! Sometimes I got the sense that she was playing up the Harvard thing a little- namedropping so many buildings, emphasizing the stodgy stereotypes, etc. Maybe that wouldn't bother other readers, though, and I have to admit that I liked reading fiction set in a place I know well.

Thanks to the excellent historical interludes, I felt like I was learning something and reading a "smart" book. I hope Ms. Howe will write some traditional historical fiction in the future. I've always been fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials, and the author brings out the mass hysteria and mob mentality that took hold during that horrible period. She also highlights a few things I didn't know about or hadn't really considered, like the humiliation suffered by the accused women and the squalor of months spent in a 17th-century prison. I also LOVED learning a little about the puritans' curious relationship with magical thinking. Compulsory religion + extremely judgmental society + magical thinking = witch hunt. All this history within a fictional thriller! Brilliant.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf!

Reading Recommendations: Beach! Halloween! Finals week! Anytime you need a break from heady reading but you don't want to kill brain cells!
Boston Book Bums has a great review of this one, too, if you want another witness.

Warnings: Maybe a couple of mild swears? Very mild implied sexuality? Really nothing worth mentioning; I can't even remember anything specific.

Favorite excerpts: "If she could have pressed her hands to her ears and willed the world to disappear, she would have. She would linger in the house, clutching Dog in her arms, sitting perfectly still in a bargain with God that if she refused to move, not even an inch, then time itself would cease to progress, and at least that way nothing could get any worse."

What I'm reading next: Quarantine: Stories, by Rahul Mehta