[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
There are a few tropes that will convince me to pick up almost any book that promises to contain them. I’ll call one of them “Searching for a Long-Lost Book,” and another “All My Forebears Were Secretly Witches.” Katherine Howe‘s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane features both of these, so it’s no surprise that I’d wanted to read it for a long time. I confess I was privately hoping for a book that combined the awesomeness of two of my all-time favorites: A.S. Byatt‘s Possession and Anne Rice‘s The Witching Hour. Despite its inclusion of the Salem witch trials, however, this is a lighter read than either of those: cozier despite the tragic history behind it, and neither as rich nor as twisty.
Connie Goodwin is a Harvard graduate student specializing in American colonial history. Just as she’s about to start her dissertation research, her mother asks a favor of her: go through the ancestral house in Marblehead, Massachusetts and clean it up for sale. While exploring the house, Connie learns that a long-ago ancestor, Deliverance Dane, may be a Salem “witch” heretofore lost to history. Unlike the other victims of the witch craze, though, Deliverance may have actually had magical power and left behind a grimoire. Connie is drawn into the mystery of the missing spellbook. The chapters detailing her search are interspersed with flashbacks to the history of Deliverance, her book, and her descendants through the years.
Katherine Howe, who is descended from two Salem “witches,” takes us on a vivid tour of Massachusetts. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane has sense of place in spades, from the old house itself to the sailing bar to the tourist kitsch of modern-day Salem. Another aspect of the setting that should be mentioned is time. The “modern-day” sections take place in 1991, though the book was published in 2009. 1991 is close enough to the present that it’s easy to forget it’s not — that is, until Connie encounters problems that could be solved with a cell phone or the Internet. We wonder why she isn’t making use of these amenities, then realize a moment later that they simply aren’t there.
I also enjoyed the character development of Connie. She’s closed-minded and closed-off as the novel begins, and begins to open her life in more ways than one as the story unfolds. There’s an adorable dog, too, which never hurts. Another strong point is Howe’s look at the way women’s writing was often disdained in academia, historically speaking. The way this ties in with the grimoire’s eventual location is clever. And after some of the books I’ve read lately, I have to give Howe props for writing a love interest who isn’t superhuman or creepy or both; he’s just a regular guy, and in fact I liked him better than I did Connie.
What doesn’t work is the mystery. First, it relies too heavily on Connie being slow to catch clues that would be unlikely to befuddle a grad student in her field. Second, and more problematically, the villain is just too obvious — painfully so.
Don’t read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane for the mystery aspect. It’s an enjoyable light read if you go in with the right expectations. Expect great atmosphere, troubled mother-daughter relationships, gentle romance, folk magic, and a bit of academic politics, but not much mystery.