Review Fridays: These Shallow Graves

The details:

Title: These Shallow Graves
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Genre: Young adult/historical fiction/mystery
Pages: 496
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Jennifer Donnelly is a marvelous writer. As someone familiar with her other work, such as award-winning A Northern Light, I looked forward to reading These Shallow Graves very much. I’m happy to say that, despite some cliche minor plot points, it did not disappoint at all. The late nineteenth century New York setting is atmospheric and thrilling. The amount of research Donnelly did while writing is very clear as the setting becomes like another living, breathing character.

Josephine Montfort, a teenager from a wealthy family, longs to be a journalist like her idol, Nellie Bly. She is pulled into a mystery when she overhears a newspaper reporter named Eddie say that her father’s so-called accidental death was a murder. Jo is a girl who questions things and feels compelled to have answers at any cost. She is also, unfortunately, expected to marry well and live the life of a proper lady. That means no going out unchaperoned, no visits to unseemly locales, and no wandering the streets at night. However, in her quest for the truth, Jo secretly does all of those things and loves the freedom. She feels the pull of duty and the pull of desire, and she has a difficult time deciding between the two. She and Eddie follow every lead as they chase the killer, despite threats made against them.

The idea of freedom, particularly for women, plays a large role in the book. Donnelly examines the double-standard between men and women during the historical period. Women who want something untraditional–their own hard-won careers–have to sacrifice something in the process. Jo is torn between doing what her family expects of her and following her own heart. She has a talent for writing, but the scope of her topics would be very limited if she made a good match. Not only that, but she finds herself falling for handsome, brave, intelligent Eddie. The romance between Jo and Eddie is very sweet, and it was impossible not to root for them.

The secondary characters are just as delightful as Jo and Eddie. Oscar is a before-his-time crime scene investigator who uses scientific knowledge to intuit how people were killed. His crush, Sarah Stein, is a medical student who is just as enthralled by the decomposition of human corpses as he is. Fay is a tough, tragic pickpocket who is bought and sold like a commodity. She, too, dreams of freedom. Jo’s high-society beau, Bram, gets enough depth by the end that the reader might wish he had more to do within the pages.

The plot sometimes is marred by cliches, including one of my least favorite: one character is seen with someone of the opposite sex, leading to the conclusion that they have another sweetheart, but it turns out the other person was just a cousin/sibling/relative of some sort. Those moments seemed like very obvious steering of the plot and characters. Yet, Donnelly rewards the reader with a bittersweet ending that felt appropriate when weighed against the rest of the novel. The ending implies that this could be a stand-alone book, but I found myself wishing that it were part of a series. Even at nearly 500 pages, the thrills and twists and turns were so constant that it was a very quick read. After finishing the book, it was hard to let Jo and Eddie and the world they inhabit go, which for me is a sign of good writing and characterization. If you are a fan of young adult literature, historical novels, or murder mysteries with lively heroines, do give this a try.

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