Saturday, July 11, 2009

Katherine Howe's Physick Book Delivers

A Review of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

Book Description:

A spellbinding, beautifully written novel that moves between contemporary times and one of the most fascinating and disturbing periods in American history – the Salem witch trials.

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 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 artifact of singular power: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.

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 she begins to fear that she is more tied to Salem’s dark past then she could have ever imagined.

Written with astonishing conviction and grace, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane travels seamlessly between the witch trials in the 1690s and a modern woman’s story of mystery, intrigue and revelation.

I picked up The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane at BEA on a whim when I was at Hyperion's booth mainly because anything that has to do with witches is worth a closer look. Then it came out and hit the NYT Bestseller List, which is pretty spectacular for a debut author so I pulled it out of my never ending stack of books I want to read and set to it.

That was four days ago.

It took me four days to finish this book, which for me, is a lot. Not because I didn't like it, but because I kept going back and re-reading or pausing to contemplate. This isn't a light beach read like a lot of summer books. It's not a thrilling urban fantasy. I've seen a couple negative reviews for this book, and I think they're mostly a case of mistaken genre - readers think they're getting something light, and they're not. It's deep beautiful prose that happens to reflect on the the witch trials in Salem, and the main character, a contemporary Harvard grad student named Connie, happens to find out she is a witch.

Katherine Howe does a convincing job portraying Connie as an aggressive, ambitious intellectual striving to achieve her goals and impress her advisors, and despite her obvious intelligence, she is still filled with insecurities and worries just like the rest of us. As a character, Connie is likable. I wanted her to succeed - I wanted her to find out about Deliverance Dane, recover the ancient spell book, fall in love, and impress the world of academia with her knowledge. Her love interest, Sam, is equally complex and even more likable. He's a preservationist - or a steeplejack as he calls himself - and when Connie first meets him, she mistakes him for a handyman until he surprises her - he was a grad student once himself.

Deliverance Dane, her daughter Mercy, and granddaughter Prudence are all equally interesting despite their only minor appearance in the occasional chapters. They all appear to be strong women stuck in a time that doesn't appreciate or understand them, and of course, the well known history of Salem and the horrors of the town's history add a certain gravity to the tension of the plot. We know from the beginning Deliverance Dane most likely died in the witch trials, which is emphasized by incorporation of other "real characters" from the trials. Deliverance's conversations in jail with Sarah Good and the way she sits next to Rebecca Nurse at her trial enforce the fact that we know she's going to die. Yet still, we hope she'll somehow rally against her fate.

The pacing is slow during the first half of the book. Though intrigued by the story and enamored with the beauty and depth of Howe's prose, I read slowly and paused frequently, and then about 156 pages in, I stopped pausing. A hundred pages later, I was fully hooked, and near the end of the book, when the pace quickened and each chapter alternated between Connie in the present and Deliverance in the past, I actually got so absorbed in the book I missed my train stop. And when I finally closed the book, I felt like I was on a high - the high that comes from reading something truly extraordinary.

Katherine Howe has done an amazing job crafting this amazing story, but The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a novel that needs to be savored and read slowly and appreciated as great fiction and great writing.

To learn more about The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, check out the book's website, here. And to check out Katherine Howe's website, click here. (She has one of the coolest author sites I've seen.)


Charlotte said...

This sounds fascinating--thanks!

Pam said...

The cover has intrigued me but now your review has completely drawn me in. This is definitely being added to my wish list!

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