These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly. Delacorte Press. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.
The Plot: New York City, 1890. Josephine Montfort has the type of life that others dream about: her family is old and respected, their money is old and respected, and she has a life of privilege and ease, of being waited on, of going to balls and parties.
Jo has friends and family and her own dreams: a dream of being a writer, of being a reporter, like Nelly Bly. It's not something a proper young lady does, however.
And then her father dies. The official report is he accidently shot himself while cleaning his gun ... but Jo has her doubts.
Those doubts, and Jo's own desire for the truth, will lead her away from the proper homes of rich New York, to places dark and dangerous.
The Good: Jo is a great heroine: while These Shallow Graves begins with Jo working on a school paper, hoping for better stories than the proper way to brew tea, Jo is very much a product of her world, her class, her time. She is limited in ways she doesn't know; and one wonders how Jo's future would have gone, had her father not died.
But her father does die, and Jo grieves but she also has questions and the instincts of a reporter, and those two things drive Jo outside the safety of her home and those she knows. Questions get answers and more questions, and there are more bodies; as well as a mysterious past and tragedies.
ARGH. You can tell that because this is, at it's heart, a mystery, I don't want to get too into the details of the mystery itself. What I can say is that I appreciate the contradictions within Jo: she is smart and clever, yes, but she has been protected by her wealth and her privilege. For example, most readers will pick up earlier than Jo does when characters are talking about brothels and prostitutes. But that is purposeful, to illustrate that Jo's being "protected" work against her by creating a level of ignorance that puts her into danger. If the reader is sometimes a step or two ahead of Jo, it's because they haven't been kept isolated behind walls of wealth and sexism.
These Shallow Graves is also very much a feminist book, looking at the options, and lack of options, of women in the late nineteenth century. There are mothers who seem to be coldly calculating as they arrange and plot suitable marriages, until one steps back and sees what happens to those women who aren't protected by money and family connections. Or, rather, what these women fear will happen to their daughters. It becomes clear early on just how narrow Jo's world is, and how that narrowness comes from fear and how that is it's own "grave", burying her dreams and hopes and desires deep.
That women do have choices, even if those choices are tough ones, is shown: yes, there are pickpockets and prostitutes and homeless women; there are people whose poverty destroy them. But there's also a mention of Edith Wharton and a young woman going to medical school. Yet it's clear that freedom, for women, is not easy or simple.
There is a bit of a love triangle, between the suitable young man that everyone, including Jo, thinks of as her future husband because, well, everyone assumes it. Such a good match, such good families, and they are friends so why not? And then there is the driven reporter, who latches onto the story of Jo's father as his ticket to a better job. Can he be trusted? And can Jo trust her feelings about him? Yes, a triangle.... but the two young men also represent the two choices Jo has: do what is safe, or do what she wants. What will make her family happy, or what will make her happy.
One last bit: without getting spoilery, I liked that many people rose to the occasion when the situation warranted. While there are some expected and unexpected betrayals, there are also people who prove themselves worthy of Jo's trust and friendship. People aren't black and white, for or against Jo. They are not shallow; they have as much depth as Jo -- it's just they are sometimes in a world that doesn't allow that depth.
These Shallow Graves are the secrets of the past; the places bodies have been buried; and also the world of Jo and her friends and families, limited by society, sexism, and prejudice.
A Favorite Book of 2015, because of the complexity of Jo. And I both want a sequel -- this could easily be the start of historical mystery series -- and a companion book, because Fay, well. Fay. Once you've read this, I think you'll agree: FAY.
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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
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