The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

It’s not so full of magick as you’d thinck.

Deliverance Dane may look like an intriguing pick, especially for book clubs wanting something historically charged and slightly foreboding, but its derivative plotting gets the better of its clever premise and well-informed research.

I rather hoped this key opened the liquor cabinet. Ahh... whiskey, vintage 1690!

I rather hoped this key opened the liquor cabinet. Ahh... whiskey, vintage 1690!

A Harvard PhD candidate, Connie Goodwin, is taking the summer to work on her dissertation when she receives a blessing in disguise. Her flaky new-age mom calls to tell her that her late grandmother’s house in the Marblehead boonies needs to be cleaned up and sold—and who better to ask than the daughter who goes to school an hour away? But within the vine-covered house, Connie discovers clues that one of her ancestors was tried for witchcraft, which would just be a totally awesome topic for her dissertation. But she also learns that maybe the magic was real, and somebody else might be after that power for not-so-academic purposes.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that after The Crucible and a high school research project, I’m all good on the Salem Witch Trials, thanks. But Katherine Howe manages to refresh the topic, and not just with the whole what-if-they-were-really-witches angle. Her portrayal of Puritan life in Deliverance’s parallel plot is ambient and convincing, and her chimings-in on the main story with analyses of witchcraft are surprisingly worthwhile.

Aside from wonky word choice here and there, the prose isn’t half bad. I also thought the characters, in both time periods, weren’t terribly interesting but were still endearing. With Dane, Howe shows promise as a new author, but what positively kills her book is that you’re always three steps ahead of it. Or at least ahead of its protagonist.

It Doesn’t Take a Diviner

A Harvard education certainly isn’t flattered by Connie’s complete inability to put two and two together as she gathers clues. Screw Professor Chilton: let me be her advisor.  Have you considered, Connie, that “the Almanack” mentioned in the old journal is the goddamn book we’re looking for? See you in thirty pages when you’ve figured it out, you airhead.

Try as Howe might, ain’t no hiding the fact that this is a plot about studying and stack diving. Research is the action. It’s not just the lead-up to what happens, it is what happens.

What do you do with that? Well, if you’re Geraldine Brooks writing People of the Book, you have your heroine globe-hop and interact with an interesting array of people, and for stretches of time the reader might forget that the main storyline is actually quite boring.

But Harvard and Marblehead, Massachusetts? You’ve really narrowed your realistic options, and from there it’s hard to construct a bookworm mystery that isn’t mind-numbingly predictable.

I kept giving Howe the benefit of the doubt. I kept thinking that the obvious villain, confrontation, and resolution must all be a big, floppity heap of red herrings, and that the author’s going to make me feel foolish at the big reveal.

But into the second half of Dane, it becomes clear that no other outcome is possible besides the one you banked on by page 40. Howe doesn’t introduce enough possibilities in her story — not just for the sake of surprise, but for even the mere feeling you’re going somewhere.

If Dane weren’t so underpopulated with characters, maybe, and its scenery weren’t so repetitive, there would actually be more avenues open for the narrative to travel down and even hit some crossroads.

But we all know how witches feel about crossroads.

One thought on “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

  1. I saw this book on my amazon recommendations and then at the bookstore and I almost pick it up to give me something to read while I wait for my copies of Pedro Paramo and The Angel’s Game to arrive in the mail, and now I’m glad I didn’t. Especially if Katherine Howe is in the same field as Dan Brown ’cause I don’t like his books.
    I ended up getting The Lovely Bones instead so I know the story before the movie comes out.
    Thanks for the no-nonsense review/heads up. That whiskey caption was funny.

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