”I merely wish to smoke. Sparky can forgive that. You, on the other hand, wish to know things. And no one can forgive a girl for that.” – These Shallow Graves
One of my favorite films growing up was Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Not typical fare for a teenage girl, sure, but I liked seeing old New York – the glitzy and the grimy. I don’t have any particular desire to live in New York City but it really is a fascinating place, isn’t it? A little Colonial Dutch outpost that slowly became a commercial mecca and now a world center of finance, culture, food, fashion, you name it. And seeing old New York (specifically 1890’s New York) was one of the coolest things about reading These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly. The book is a Young Adult mystery novel, published in 2015, which follows an upper class society girl who dreams of becoming a reporter and gets mixed up in the city’s underworld when she starts investigating her father’s mysterious death.
Admittedly, I didn’t pick out this book myself. One of my Christmas gifts this year was a subscription to a service called How Novel, which mails you a surprise book every month. You get some choice in the picking, but you don’t know exactly what it will be! And, all in all, this book was a fun read, mostly because, as I mentioned, it takes you all around old New York: from the glitzy society world of the main character, Josephine Montfort, to sites of the most abject and horrific poverty. From beautiful balls at the Met with bejeweled girls ‘graceful in white kid gloves’ to the ‘dank, airless hallway(s)’ and ‘crumbling walls’ of the tenement buildings. And very much in between.
The author Jennifer Donnelly has written several historical novels (for YA and adult readers), and I could feel the depth of her knowledge here, the care she took to create this world. From the characters’ clothing, to their attitudes, to their finances, Donnelly had clearly done a great deal of research and in fact she includes an interesting list of research books that influenced her at the back of the novel (which I always enjoy!).
Where the book was ultimately a bit of a let down was the predictability of the plot itself and the characters. Jo feels like a very familiar character – plucky, ahead-of-her-time, kind and intelligent as well as ‘uncommonly pretty’. Maybe it’s just my mood these days, but I enjoy heroines that are a bit more prickly than this, a bit more flawed. (In fact, I somewhat disagree with the entire notion of ‘unlikeable’ v ‘likable’ characters entirely, typically the only time I don’t like a character is when they seem too good to be true). Even Jo’s namesake who is, I imagine, Jo from Little Women is a lot more ‘flawed’ than our Jo here. And there are more unusual, prickly characters occasionally – a man called The Tailor, who is described in the book itself as NYC’s own Fagin, was scary and a lot of fun, the sarcastic pickpocket Fay was very vivid.
Where this predictability is the most stark is the addition of a villainous character Jo and Eddie (her hunky newspaper reporter friend) refer to as ‘Scarface’. It’s not only a cliche, for a villain to have a random scar, but also made me think of the disabled authors who have spoken about the frequent links between physical deformity and villainy in literature and film (and why that should change). I’ll leave that to people who are more well-versed in the subject than me, but, at its heart, it is still a very familiar trope and one of many within the book.
It’s predictable not only in terms of character but also plot. It’s the sort of book where I would frequently summarize where I was in my reading to my partner and then say: guess what happens next? And 100% of the time, he guessed right.
There’s not anything inherently wrong with this. The novel isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here, and my guess is that lots of readers would enjoy it nonetheless (I certainly did!). But what would have lifted it, in my eyes, from good to great is either a plot or a central character that felt a bit more fresh.
I will say that the ending was a bit of a surprise. Even though I suspected what we were heading towards, I appreciate that Donnelly faced her subject head on and didn’t pull any punches. Without any spoilers, the book does explore the compromises (in many cases the moral sacrifices) that it takes to accumulate tremendous wealth and the dark side, as it were, to Jo’s glittering life. All good and all interesting!
I’d recommend the book, although I feel I read it at the wrong time of year. This feels like a great autumn book – it’s set in autumn and has a lot of spooky elements. Again, no spoilers, but there’s a ‘madhouse’ at one point, creepy figures lurking in the night, and one very memorable visit to a graveyard. While it wasn’t amazing, for the reasons listed above, it was definitely good – enjoy the vivid settings (particularly the underworld, which Donnelly seems to enjoy writing about more than the opulence), the gothic vibes, and the fast-moving plot!
I would, without question, read more books by Donnelly and I plan to. I think that, with another set of characters and a more unusual plot, I’d easily fall in love with her writing because she clearly (like me) is a big history nerd. I’m particularly interested in her novel Revolution which has two timelines and follows one modern day girl and one girl during the French Revolution, which already sounds like a more exciting premise to me.
Do you like the sound of These Shallow Graves? What have you been reading recently? Any recommendations?
Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:
- These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly
- The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (Wharton is actually mentioned in the novel and she comes from exactly the same time/place as our main character: Jo. The only novel of hers that I’ve read is Age of Innocence and I loved it. So good.)
- ‘How Nellie Bly Transformed Journalism Forever’ from Drunk History (The phenomenal Victorian era female journalist Nellie Bly is mentioned constantly in These Shallow Graves. Check out this video from Drunk History to learn more about how Bly faked ‘insanity’ in order to get put in an insane asylum…in order to write about it and expose the abusive practices of the staff!! She’s basically the foremother (is that a word?) of investigative journalism)
PS Today’s featured image is of New York’s Mulberry Street c. 1900, accessed via Wikipedia
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!