Ratings: ☕☕☕☕☕ (5/5)
- An incredibly brave, kick-ass heroine torn between doing right by her family and pursuing her own dreams? Check.
- Struggle for feminism and freedom? Check
- A filthy rich, high society family with dirty secrets and skeletons in their closets? Check.
- A fast-paced, cardiac arrest inducing mystery? Check.
- Swoon worthy, bittersweet romance? Check.
If you like all of the above, then you are bound to fall in love with Jennifer Donnelly’s These Shallow Graves–an epic, thrilling, page-turner story about an elite young woman who gives up all the glamour of her high profile life in the pursuit of truth and justice.
I did. I really did. In fact, this book was so wonderful that I’m having an extremely hard time writing this review. How am I ever going to sum up the perfection this novel is in a 1000+ word review?
The Writing: I have never read any of Donnelly’s works before and after reading this one book I’m officially a fan! From the first three pages she had me seriously invested in our MC Josephine “Jo” Montfort. It wasn’t merely because the writer is an expert at making characters feel so real and lifelike they seem to pop right out of the pages, but also because of the writing style itself; the story telling was a perfect balance of simplicity mixed with beauty and elegance. There were no fancy metaphors and expressions in this novel—the writer used simple words to drive her point home. Don’t get me wrong, I love poetic prose, but I also love writers who can make something that would normally seem artless feel so sophisticated and full of emotion like the quote below.
She glimpsed something dark in the beautiful scene. It showed through the surface like base metal under badly plated jewelry.
The glittering ball, Jo realized, was a symbol of her life. Everything was lovely and perfect as long as each person knew the steps and executed them. The women must only ever watch and wait. The men were the ones who would decide. They would choose. They would lead. And the women would follow. Tonight and forevermore.
The world building too was incredibly convincing even with subtle descriptions. Reading this book felt like a front seat ride into the 19th century; it was easy to see myself in 1890’s New York and experience through the characters what society was like back then. The writer does a wonderful job at portraying how women were treated and how quick people were to discriminate others. I’ll be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel grateful for being a woman of the twenty-first century.
“I understand the family’s bereaved, of course I do. But I don’t see why it should delay an engagement,” Grandmama said petulantly…“Girls these days. I don’t understand them. Waiting until twenty to marry and then having such small families!”
“…If only it were that easy with daughters, eh, Maddie? Take a sturdy bitch in season, put her in a pen with a keen stud, and two months later, there you are with six strapping pups!”
“I don’t care what Elizabeth is doing. I think any girl who doesn’t put her Paris dresses away for at least a year is vulgar,” Addie sniffed.
Right. That’s vulgar.
Aside from the narration and the descriptions though, another reason why Jennifer Donnelly’s writing made such an impression was because this book had a blend of everything: romance, thrill, mystery, feminism. To incorporate all of these things in a book requires skills, and Jennifer Donnelly pulled it off like a pro.
The Characters: One of the things that made me love this book was the brilliant characterization–everyone, from our strong willed protagonist, Jo, to the supporting characters like the quirky, intelligent medical practitioner Oscar, were lifelike, had a purpose and their development as the story progressed was incredible and realistic at the same time.
Jo was a character I especially loved. There were times when she made stupid mistakes but it was only because she had always lived a very sheltered life, so it was very easy for me to forgive her. And despite the things she did wrong, she kept fighting back and by the end of the book her character had developed so smoothly into a brave, independent young woman that I couldn’t help but feel proud of her. Her journey was one that made me respect her more and more as she faced one challenge after another. This is a girl who was torn between two worlds–one where she would be free and happy but be exiled from everyone she loved and one where she would live her life in chains and still have the company of her family and friends.
“Need I remind you that she’s a scandalous lady reporter who meddles in other people’s business and has no hope of marrying a decent man? You, in contrast, are a Montfort, and Montforts marry. Early and well. And that is all.”
“Well, this Montfort’s going to do a bit more,” Jo declared. “Like write stories for newspapers.”
Jo knew she shouldn’t sit at the edge of her seat, her face pressed to the glass—Eager young ladies aren’t ladies at all, her mother would’ve said—but she couldn’t help it. The New York before her now was so much more interesting than the one she knew, and alone in her carriage, away from the oppressiveness of her mother’s rules, she could give free rein to her insatiable curiosity.
Our other character, Eddie Gallagher, is officially my new book boyfriend. He’s driven and ruthless, which made me doubt his feelings for Jo for a while, but I couldn’t help but fall in love with him regardless. Like Jo, he has own struggles, coming from a world that is a polar opposite to the one Jo was born in, and I loved the way these differences between them developed their characters and their relationship with each other.
Oh and Oscar, my darling Oscar. Despite being one of the smartest characters, he is basically the comic relief in this book, adding just the right amount of humor to the otherwise serious and dark mood of this story.
“How does one practice forensic medicine?” Jo asked, her curiosity overcoming her revulsion.
“Through rigorous observation, my dear,” Oscar said in a professorial voice. “One notes the position of the victim’s body, as well as its stiffness, color, and state of decay. One looks for blood spatter. Determines the absence or presence of powder burns. Differentiates between the cuts of a hatchet and those of a carving knife. Recognizes the chemical actions and reactions of poisons, acids, and solvents.
The plot: The biggest problem that mystery novels face in my opinion is predictability–I can almost always see the so called “plot twist” coming. And I won’t lie, in These Shallow Graves I saw who the real antagonist was from a mile away, but Jennifer Donnelly gets points for writing a cliched mystery with such skill that the tropes did not bother me at all. It did not make me enjoy the book any less neither did my interest waver for even a second; the way the characters were trying to solve the mystery had me hooked throughout the whole book. None of the clues came easily to them, they had to work hard, go on goose chases and face heart racing dangerous situations to get to the bottom of things.
This book not only sends a strong feminist message, but goes onto explore the painful, difficult lives of those living below the poverty line. It addresses the issues of poor, desperate people falling victims to a life of crime.
“But she’s a human being,” Jo protested, heartsick at the thought of Fay’s fate. “You can’t just buy and sell her. That’s slavery. Have you no sense of morality?”
“Morality is a luxury, my darling. A very expensive one,” Esther said.
“You’re engaged to Abraham Aldrich, are you not? No doubt your dear mama—if she’s worth a damn—tallied the fortunes and prospects of every young man of means in the city, weighing their dollars against your assets: beauty and breeding.” She paused to let her words sink in, then said, “One day soon, my darling, you’ll be doing the very same thing the girls here do, only you won’t get paid for it.”
Oh and the sizzling romance. I could literally feel the sparks between Eddie and Jo from the time they first met, even though there was no insta-love–their relationship developed as the story progessed and the way they made each other better made me put their names in my Top Ten OTP list. This was one of those rare love stories where the characters fall in love because they make each other better. I particularly loved Jo’s reasons for loving Eddie–it wasn’t just because he was handsome and a good person but because he helped her be smarter, braver and stronger.
“The truth is, I’ve barely slept since I last saw you. I think about you all the time. I never wanted…I didn’t…Oh hell, Jo!” he said, throwing his hands up. “I shouldn’t be saying these things to you. I mean, you’re not here with me tonight. You’re with Bram Aldrich, and I have no right–“
Eddie didn’t get to finish his sentence. Jo took his face in her hands, pulled him to her, and kissed him. With her lips, her breath, and her body, she gave him his right.
Eddie didn’t spare her. He made her work. He made her think. It was not what she was used to from a man, and she liked it.
The Ending: While the ending held no element of surprise for me, I still loved the way Donnelly wrapped up the mystery and then showed how the lives of nearly every character changed after all the events of the book. It was not only realistic but beautifully presented and at the same time a little heart breaking to read. I can’t quite say it’s a happy ending, but it’s not a tragedy either–it’s simply bitter-sweet.
I’ll end my review saying that if you haven’t read this book yet–give it a go! This book deserves all the praise it has received and so much more. These Shallow Graves is a story that deserves a place on your book shelf.