“Josephine Montfort stood at the newly mounded grave in front of her and the wooden cross marking it.”
Jo Montfort is working on an article for her finishing school’s tepid newspaper when she gets some REAL news: that her father accidentally shot and killed himself while cleaning his gun in their Gramercy Park townhouse. The rest of her family and the elite Gilded Age New York social circle she inhabits automatically accept the accidental suicide story but Jo has her doubts; she knows that her father was a careful gun owner, and that he never would have cleaned a gun while it was loaded. Add some scandalous statements she overhears while casually dropping some eaves to the suspicion mix and Jo is off to the races with a cutie patootie aspiring reporter at her side to dig up the truth about her father’s untimely death.
I’d had Jennifer Donnelly‘s These Shallow Graves on my to-read list since I devoured her incredible A Northern Light over my spring break. I’ve been reading a hell of a lot of historic fiction (or at least, more than I ever have before) in the past twelve months, and it hit me that one of the reasons I enjoy it so much is the same thing that draws me to fantasy again and again: good historic fiction and good fantasy both require exquisitely detailed world-building, and Donnelly is a master craftswoman when it comes to reconstructing the days of yore. And while it doesn’t have the same quiet richness that characterized A Northern Light, T.S.G. is still a damn good yarn.
Jo is a likable, if occasionally baffling heroine; while her quest for the truth is titillating and her attraction to Eddie (hottie reporter) inevitable, it did feel a bit strange that her sorrow for her father’s sudden death occupied such a small corner of the narrative. Perhaps it’s because I’m currently grappling with the conflicting and consumptive emotions of grief that I’m so sensitive to its absence in a book that starts with parental death, but for the sake of believability Donnelly maybe could have spared a few more words on Jo’s grieving process, especially considering how many words were spent on her wanting to smooch the dickens out of Eddie. Not that I had a problem with that! Even though their romance was obvious it was earned and Donnelly gets an A++++ for the depiction of a young woman’s sexual awakening in a time when genteel women weren’t allowed to even know that women could enjoy getting down.
The mystery itself is topsy-turvy with red herring cliffhangers galore and I loved every minute of it, even if I diiiiiiiid figure out the culprit way before the endgame. I adored the dynamic interplay of fast-paced mystery narrative with Jo’s awakening, though without that added depth this may have been just an average murder mystery period piece. I know the rich girl falling in love with the working class boy and then learning all about the lower classes trope is a tired one (we’ve all seen Titanic, after all), but the way in which Donnelly weaves social issues of the time into the mystery as Jo’s awareness becomes more expansive was still a blast to read and earned These Shallow Graves a place in the higher echelon of “books I have read in 2016.”
Bottom line: if you like complex mysteries and/or period pieces with strong strains of feminism, this shit is your JAM.
For music I have TWO little ditties that fit pretty well. PJ Harvey’s classic “C’mon Billy” goes right out to Eleanor Owens, poor thing.
And while I don’t normally enjoy post-Danzig Misfits quite as much, “Dig Up Her Bones” seems like a pretty good fit for Jo et al’s grave digging endeavors <3.