These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly
“‘If you’re going to bury the past, bury it deep, girl. Shallow graves always give up their dead.”
I’ve been giving out so many two- and three-star rating recently that I was starting to worry that maybe I was getting a wee bit too picky with my ratings. Were my expectations too high?
Then I came across ‘These Shallow Graves’ by Jennifer Donnelly on NetGalley. I had neve read anythoung by Ms. Donnelly before, and I went in with basically no expectations – I read the blurb and thought it sounded interesting. When I started to read it, though, it completely knocked my socks off. It reminded me that YES, there are five-star books out there, you just have to be lucky enough to cross paths with them.
Josephine is a Montfort. A member of a well-to-do family that made its fortune in the shipping industry in the 1800s. Not much is expected of Jo. She’s just supposed to complete finishing school and accept the proposal of Abraham Aldrich. A life of luxury and privileged awaits her. But Josephine isn’t satisfied with the confining path that she is expected to walk.
“The glittering ball, Jo realized, was a symbol for 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 woman would follow. Tonight and forevermore.”
Jo harbors a secret desire to be become a newspaper reporter like her idol, Nellie Bly. Bly famously posed as a mentally imbalanced woman so she could report on the injustices woman face in insane asylums. Jo, too, wants to draw back New York’s gilded curtain to unveil the ugly truths lurking underneath the surface.
Then, tragedy strikes. Jo’s kindly father, Charles Montfort, unintentionally shoots himself while cleaning his pistol. But as Josephine hears more and more about her father’s tragic accident, she becomes suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his death. Would her father really be foolish enough to clean a loaded gun? Perhaps Jo isn’t the only Montfort with a secret.
What follows next is a compelling mystery as Josephine enlists the help of a handsome local reporter to uncover the mystery of her father’s death. The plot moves along at breakneck pace, so even though the book is 500 pages long, it didn’t drag for a minute. I would have happily read another two hundred pages of Josephine’s adventure. The adventure is filled with colorful characters, atmospheric depictions of New York’s seedy underbelly, and a healthy dose of both friendship and romance.
Josephine is one of my favorite characters in recent memory. She is determined and brave, often chafing against what society expects of her. Still, her level of rebellion feels appropriate for the time period. She’s been so sheltered for so long that she’s still clueless about a lot of ways the world works, with often funny and touching results. She’s courageous and flawed and a wonderful voice through which to experience the novel.
“‘Headstrong girls always end badly,’ Katie said now.
“‘Headstrong is just a word, Katie — a word other s call you when you don’t do what they want,’ Jo said.”
The feminism in this book is so refreshing. As a wealthy young woman, Josephine struggles against the expectation that she marry well and then shut up. But the book also looks at what life was like for women from all walks of life in the 1890s (hint: it wasn’t great). There’s also a lot of strong and courageous female characters and powerful female friendship between Jo and a notorious pickpocket, Fay. Josephine and Fay, from two entirely different social classes, both long for the same thing — freedom. Freedom to do and be whoever they want.
He’d assumed she was a prostitute simply because she was walking on her own in the city at night. Men could walk the city at night and no one thought the worse of them, but a woman walking alone…that was scandalous enough to get oneself labeled as a prostitute.
The romance was kind of perfect. I’m not big on romance in books, but Jo and Eddie develop a very sweet and understated relationship. It’s a slow-burn (a nice change from all the insta-love on the market), and their attraction is deepened by mutual respect and collaboration. I might have even swooned. But I also love that Eddie’s love does not lessen Josephine’s own development. At the end of the day, she is her own heroine.
I could honestly write another ten paragraphs about how much I loved this book, but I think I’ve made my opinion clear. This book will stay with me for a long time.
“This is the best thing, Jo. The city stretched out before you, glittering like a sack of diamonds. Yours for the taking. A drink and a smoke and no one to please but yourself. Freedom. That’s my answer. The freedom to be your own best thing.”