Friday, July 9, 2010

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (audio)

Book Description:
Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she can't refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers an ancient key secreted within a seventeenth-century Bible. The key contains a yellowing fragment of parchment with a name written upon it: Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest to find out who this woman was, and to unearth a rare colonial artifact of singular power: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge of herbs and other, stranger things.

As the pieces of Deliverance's harrowing story begin to fall into place, Connie is haunted by visions of the long-ago witch trials, and begins to fear that she is more tied to Salem's dark past then she could have ever imagined.

I had high hopes for this book, for it had a lot of elements in it I usually like.  Unfortunately, this was just okay, nothing great.  I normally love historical fiction and the Salem Witch Trials, though overdone, is a period I actually haven't read much about apart from reading The Crucible a million years ago in high school.  More recently I read The Lace Reader which takes place in present day Salem with a supernatural witchy theme to it.  It kind of got me in the mood for more.  The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane seemed a perfect combination for me.  The basic theme and plotline of the story was a good one, but the author just didn't carry it out as far as she could have.  Instead we got what seemed like an abridged version of what could have been a really good book.

I wanted a meatier, more interesting detailed story of Deliverance herself in the 1600's.  The author centered more on the modern day heroine, Connie, who wasn't all that likeable and had a propensity for dropping her book bag everywhere she went with a resounding thunk!  Okay, I get it, she carries a lot of books around because she's a graduate student at Harvard!  Connie's story becomes complicated as she learns that she is a descendant of a family of healers or "cunning women" and the physick book she is searching for that belonged to her g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-grandmother is a sort of family book of spells - a grimoire.  In addition, her boyfriend is struck down with some kind of recurring seizures and her professor is using her to find the book for his own nefarious reasons.

I love books that flash back to an earlier period as in Lauren Willig's excellent Pink Carnation Series.  In Physick we have another present day Harvard PhD candidate, only her specialty is researching the early Puritans.  I thought, great we'll learn about Deliverance Dane's story going back in time. Well, yes we did learn about her a little, but it was a let down.  It could have been much better.  The author only skims the surface of what could have been the story of Deliverance and her descendants - the women in the family and their trials and tribulations - or maybe even something about the book itself and where it wound up and why and with whom.   Just when I think we're going to have a lengthy chapter on Deliverance and we'll get to know all about her and her descendents, something along the lines of Anne Rice's The Witching Hour, the chapter ends with it's hokey mood music - this is an audiobook afterall - and we flop back to Connie and her bookbag.  Grrr! I wanted to know more about Deliverance, we barely got her story.  Yes, we find out what happens to her at the end, and the description of her trial and it's outcome were excellently done, but it wasn't enough.  Instead we get two chapters that tell a bit about her daughter and grandaughter, neither or whom are likeable. I wanted to know about how Deliverance met her husband, what her life was like before she was accused of being a witch, what was she thinking?  What happened to the men in the family - why were they all struck down?  There could have been so much more to this story and instead we get this half-hearted attempt at historical fiction tacked onto a contemporary mystery thriller with a caricature of a villanous professor in pursuit of the Philospher's Stone!  

Connie's part of the story had some interesting touches to it, the pyrotechnics when she tries out a spell or two were lively (I was tempted to try them out myself!) but her relationship with a local steeplejack who becomes her boyfriend was lightweight.   There was no emotion and I kept wondering what in the world did this guy see in her - she was so dull and dreary!  When he falls ill and she must save him, the plot picked up, but their relationship lacked pizzazz and romance.  For them to suddenly be in love seemed farfetched and improbable.  I needed some backup material and primary sources! ;)

I listened to this on audio and the narrator, Katherine Kellgren, was fine, but I just didn't really like the book itself.   The colonial time periods were too brief, it would have been more interesting if they were longer and more detailed in the plot and build up. The lack of character development and the clichéd villain and kooky mother did nothing for me.  Basically, this book just had no depth to it, a real disappointment.  It didn't help that I didn't really get the ending either.  Ghosts?  Maybe the author's next effort will be better.


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