Friday, October 29, 2010

Book Review: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

As I mentioned in my reading list post, I have been waiting quite a while to get my hands on this book and it was definitely worth the wait!  When I saw that Matthew Pearl who authored The Dante Club, a book I really enjoyed, wrote a review of it that was featured on the back cover of the book, I knew I was in for a treat.

Let me start by sharing with you something about the author.  According to her biography on the back flap of the book cover, Katherine Howe is a doctoral candidate in American and New England Studies who can trace her lineage back to not one, but two, women who were accused as witches during the Salem witch trials: Elizabeth Procter, who was made famous as John Proctor's wife in The Crucible and survived the trials, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not survive.  This blew me away! I am always fascinated by family trees and often wonder what sort of interesting characters there are in my background.  I suppose that's why one of my 130 Before I'm Thirty goals is to research my family tree.  You never know who might be back there just waiting to be discovered!

Back to the book.  The protagonist, Connie Goodwin, like Katherine Howe, is a PhD student in New England studies at Harvard.  What starts out as a reluctant favor for her mother when she is supposed to be researching her dissertation becomes a hunt for a book, a physick book, that puts her life and the life of those around her in danger.  It appears that the Salem witch trials, long over, are closer to Connie that she may think.

The book manages to move seamlessly from Goodwin's story in 1991 and that of Deliverance Dane, whose physick book Connie is trying to find.  One difficulty, one that perhaps readers who are accustomed to either reading books written in a Bostonian/New England accent or are more familiar with the accent than me (i.e. live or have lived on the East Coast) may not struggle with, was understanding some of the dialect as Howe wrote it.  At first I was a bit frustrated and confused, but once I pictured how John F. Kennedy (or any Kennedy for that matter) would pronounce the words, I did a lot better.

Spoiler alert!  For those readers who have read the book, please highlight the text below for a brief discussion:

I enjoyed the twists and turns in this novel very much.  I also appreciated that the chapters were substantial in length, something that annoys me about Dan Brown's books.  One and a half pages does not a chapter make, at least in my opinion.  This was especially helpful since the book moves through time fairly often. 

I must admit I suspected early on that Connie was related to Deliverance somehow.  At the very least, I suspected that the house once belonged to her or a relative.  I did not make the connection regarding the names, however (Deliverance, Mercy, Prudence, Patience, Sophia, Grace, and Constance).  That was a great twist and a fun discovery! 

I also enjoy in books and in film when the reader or viewer knows something the characters do not.  I appreciated Howe's effort in this regard when the reader learns what happened to the physick book before Connie does.  You want to scream at Connie: she sold the book!  It's not there!  But alas, you must keep reading to see what happens.

Overall, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a great book and definitely worth reading.  You will learn a great deal about early New England life, academic culture at Ivy League colleges and yourself, all while enjoying a thrilling and fast paced yarn.

Happy (early) Halloween everyone!

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