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The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane - Katherine Howe

Although this reads like a first novel (and like the work of someone who isn't used to writing fiction), I very much enjoyed this book. I have to qualify this review with a couple of explanations, though. There are some things about me that make this book well-suited to my particular tastes, and because you probably don't have the same weird experiences or obsessions that I have, your mileage may vary:

 

1. I am, and always have been, obsessed with the Salem witch trials, and I love a good telling of history. This book combines both. The witch trials, though, absolutely fascinate me. A large part of the text features protagonist Connie's historical musings on the causes, historical context, and social culture surrounding the trials (the author's academic background coming out to play). This part absolutely fascinated me, but I can see how people who just want a whiz-bang fantasy book about witches who don't give a shit about history would find these sequences boring. Of course, I reserve the right to judge said people for thinking so, but that's my prerogative, I suppose.

 

2. Like Connie, I have a (very recent) experience working in academia. The sequence where she takes her oral exams gave me panic flashes back to my own not so distant oral exams. And even though I've never been to Harvard, and my Masters program was nowhere as exhausting as Connie's PhD, it was a very familiar environment to me, and one I could easily relate to. Unfortunately, it's also a very narrow one, and again, I can see how some might find it dull.

 

3. I spent a large part of my graduate work with a professor of Women's Studies who occasionally crossed over into English Lit. Her main specialty is the inner lives of women from about 1600-1900, and she uses a lot of primary sources (mostly women's diaries) to back up her research, so a lot of what Connie was dealing with in the search for Deliverance Dane's book felt extremely familiar. I'm also a sucker for any novel that can illuminate the social history of women in interesting ways, and that's something I feel this novel really gets right.

 

4. I love old shit. Old houses, old books, old churches, old everything. This book was like a treasure trove of all that crap. It was awesome.

 

That's not to say the book is perfect. This was a first novel, after all, and it was written by a person who is used to a more clinical, academic style of writing. There are a lot of overly descriptive scenes, some shaky character interactions, and the romance between Connie and Sam in particular felt rushed and a little bit forced. Mostly, I think is due to the fact that we know almost nothing about Sam other than that Connie likes him. It's all on the surface with him. Admittedly, what was on the surface seemed pretty cool, but I would still have appreciated some actual development. Instead, he's like the feminist version of the damsel in the distress: he's feminist man-candy, and that really hurts the rest of the book (I don't want to go into details, but Sam plays a large part in moving the plot forward, so it would have been nice to actually get to know him on more than a surface level). Parts of the plot were also pretty predictable, and I often found myself at least two steps ahead of Connie as she was trying to figure things out. This is a minor complaint, though, as it wasn't the mystery I was reading it for, but the atmosphere.

 

Overall, though, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is an intelligent rewriting of history with a little bit of a fantasy kick to it, so if that sounds like it might be your thing, I highly recommend you check this puppy out.