These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

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these shallow gravesThese Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly
Delacorte Press, 2015.

A while back, I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Donnelly’s Revolution (2010), which engendered in me an, as yet unfulfilled, desire to visit the catacombs of Paris. I have not read any of her novels since then, so I was excited when this latest one popped up in my review pile.

Set in late 1800’s New York, this exciting historical romance-mystery is also a sharp examination of the position of upper class women during that era.

Blueblood Josephine Montfort wants to be a writer uncovering injustice and social conditions, like Nellie Bly. But she comes to realize that she is just an item to be traded by her family without much say from her – she has to marry the man, and make the social connection, that her family chooses for her, and, in return, she will condemned to a luxurious but indolent and meaningless life.

This is the path Jo’s life is destined to take, even if she chafes a little at her inability to make a difference, until her father accidentally shoots himself. Struggling to believe that is possible, a chance encounter with a handsome and roguishly charming reporter leads the two of them to investigate further. When she discovers that her father was really murdered, she plunges into the dark underbelly of the city to get to the truth at all costs.

The plot takes a bit of time to get going, but builds up a head of steam with the trail rapidly turning up new clues and theories along the way as it races to the gripping denouement. I felt that this was a story I’d read before, or at least parts of it, – a mysterious tattooed villain, an insane asylum, a gang of child thieves controlled by an unscrupulous adults – but Ms Donnelly brings to life both the seedy side of Manhattan and the affluent one with great verve. There are, unfortunately, a couple of wildly unlikely coincidences that aren’t vital to the plot but allow everything to be wrapped up very neatly.

The central couple of Jo and newspaperman Eddie Gallagher have great verve and they, inevitably, fall in love, even knowing their relationship is socially untenable for her. The support characters tend to be a little stereotyped – the urchin with the heart of gold, the stiff upper lip suitor, the nerdy best friend – but still populate the story with energy and warmth.

The plight of the upper class woman restricted in every way, both physical and emotional, gives the novel a social awareness that will still have some resonance for readers today, and this, along with the novel’s fast-paced easy reading, should give it great appeal to teens.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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