Conversion: Review

December 9, 2014 2014, 3.5 star books, Peyton, witches 23 ★★★½

Conversion: ReviewConversion by Katherine Howe
Published by Putnam Children's on July 1, 2014
Genres: contemporary, historical
Pages: 402 pages
Format: Hardcover
Source: Borrowed
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From the New York Times bestselling author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane comes a chilling mystery—Prep meets The Crucible.

It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ texts: Through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t.

First it’s the school’s queen bee, Clara Rutherford, who suddenly falls into uncontrollable tics in the middle of class. Her mystery illness quickly spreads to her closest clique of friends, then more students and symptoms follow: seizures, hair loss, violent coughing fits. St. Joan’s buzzes with rumor; rumor blossoms into full-blown panic.

Soon the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts, as everyone scrambles to find something, or someone, to blame. Pollution? Stress? Or are the girls faking? Only Colleen—who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit—comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuries ago . . .

Inspired by true events—from seventeenth-century colonial life to the halls of a modern-day high school—Conversion casts a spell. With her signature wit and passion, New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe delivers an exciting and suspenseful novel, a chilling mystery that raises the question, what’s really happening to the girls at St. Joan’s?

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this book. I didn’t know much of anything about this book when I started it, except that it had to do with the Salem Witch Trials. I like Salem. I like witches. I figured I would like this. Well, this was not what I expected, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. Conversion is a story about friendship and the nature of the truth in both the present day and the past of Salem. It tackles a lot of stuff, and I think is for the most part successful.

One thing I didn’t know going in is that there are two stories told in alternating chapters. The main one is set in a present-day private school for girls where a mysterious illness—called, catchily enough, the Mysterious Illness—has quickly spread. The story follows Colleen and her circle of friends as they navigate the high-stakes college admission process while also trying to figure out what, or who, is causing the illness. The other storyline is centered around Ann, one of the girls at the center of the Salem Witch Trials fictionalized in The Crucible, confessing what actually happened. These stories don’t really connect past the fact that Colleen is reading The Crucible in school and uses it as a justification for what she thinks the Mysterious Illness is. I found myself not as interested in Ann’s story, just reading it quickly so I could get back to the characters I cared about. It wasn’t as fleshed out as Colleen’s chapters and seemed to be there just to lead you to certain conclusions about what the Mysterious Illness would be (more on that later).

Where I thought the story really shined was with Colleen and her friends. Colleen was a very interesting, likable character. The stress she felt over achieving valedictorian and getting into her college of choice was a great representation of how competitive these things have become for young people. The stress over academics is always present in Colleen’s mind, even when she’s meeting a cute boy (could he take her spot at Harvard?) or when the illness becomes more serious (staying home from school could get her rival a tenth of a point higher of a GPA).

All of her friends stood out as individuals, and I was happy to see a lot of diverse characters in the midst as well. I wish there had been more time spent on the friends, but there was still enough there for me to enjoy. I was also happy that the main plot line didn’t have a lot to do with boys. There is some romantic drama, but the bulk of the story is about the girls, finding out what the illness is, and their academic lives. I found that refreshing after reading so many stories with a heavy romance.

The Mysterious Illness was what really drew me in. You’re thrown right into it in the first few pages and everything escalates very quickly from a few girls having it to over forty, all with different symptoms, the only common factor being the school they go to. I liked how everything is happening in a very small environment, like with the witch trials its paralleling, but that the fact that it is a modern day setting is still addressed. News vans start staking out the school. The first girls who contract the illness get interviews on a national talk show. Possible causes are hot topic issues of the day, like the HPV vaccine and toxic chemicals. All of this felt very realistic to the times, and with the alternating chapters from the perspective of Ann confessing what the source of her Mysterious Illness was, the story leads you in a certain direction as to what the modern illness is.

And, that is where I get my conflicting feelings on this book. I liked all the set up. I liked the characters. I liked the eery progression of the illness. I wasn’t as much a fan of the Ann chapters, but with alternating story lines I usually have one I favor significantly over the other. The reason I wasn’t sure if I liked the book was because of the ending. Everything is set up to go a certain way. I was fine with that way. I thought it made sense for the story and it tied together the two story lines as much as they could be. And, then something else happens which casts everything into doubt. In my opinion, the ending really took away from what I thought the point of Colleen’s story was and made Ann’s story feel like it was there solely to lead you in the wrong direction.

Despite my issues with the ending I would recommend this book. It has a cast of strong, diverse female characters, an interesting mystery, and captures the high-stress mentality of school for young people today. I loved being able to read a book where almost all the characters were female and the plot resolved around their issues and not a boy, and for that reason I think it’s a great book to check out.

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23 Responses to “Conversion: Review”

  1. Anna

    I liked this story for the most part. However, I had a major problem with one particular issue that I thought was never really dealt with. Not sure if I can use a spoiler tag in the comments, but this is definitely a spoiler….so don’t continue reading if you don’t want to know.

    I thought it was very disturbing that Colleen’s best friend was dating their teacher and it was never approached in a bad or unhealthy relationship way. It seemed like Colleen just approached it if her friend was dating a normal high school student and was broken up over that. I just found it very disturbing that there wasn’t any message in the book that…hey student/teacher relationships are not okay.

    I liked the Salem Witch Trial part of the story but this relationship kinda ruined the parts of the story that I did actually like.

  2. Pili

    I am quite torn about this one, because I’m afraid I’ll probably be wanting to read more about the Salem trials period than the competitive school story…

    I’m gonna check that article that Wendy linked to and see if maybe that will make me even more intrigued about the book!
    Pili recently posted…Waiting On Wednesday #72!!

    • Peyton

      It’s definitely a lot more intense when you know the way the illness spreads is pretty close to how it actually happened in real life. Everything happens really quickly. While reading I thought it was a little fantastical just how quick it was,only to find out that was what actually happened to an all-girl school.
      Peyton recently posted…Mortal Heart: review + giveaway

  3. Wendy Darling

    Peyton–you said you had mixed feelings about the ending, and now I need to leaf through my copy because I’m curious if it’s what I think it is. I’m not sure if you knew, but this mysterious illness is based on a true story! I didn’t realize this until another book I read earlier this year, THE FEVER by Megan Abbott, also left me with some conflicts about its ending, and then I read some articles talking about these two books based on this weirdo event. Here’s one:

    I think it’s a fascinating phenomenon, but if the ending is anything like THE FEVER, I understand why it may not have been entirely satisfying. But still, sometimes you have to embellish/expand on fact if you want fiction to be phenomenal.

    • Peyton

      There’s actually a note after the end that explains the phenomenon she based it on, so I knew that. I haven’t read The Fever, though. The part I wasn’t crazy about was something I’m pretty sure did not happen in the real event. Now I want to know how The Fever ended, though.
      Peyton recently posted…Mortal Heart: review + giveaway

  4. Nikki

    I’m so on the fence about this. The one thing that would ultimately actually draw me into this story is the fact that it parallels the Salem Witch trials. Being how you felt about those parts of the book, I’m just not sure if I’d like this.

    • Peyton

      If you like the Salem Witch Trials I would still read it. Even though I didn’t think the stories connected a lot one of the stories takes place then and is all about it. The author put a lot of research into those trials and it was very interesting and detailed.
      Peyton recently posted…Mortal Heart: review + giveaway

  5. Hilary

    The fact that you said the main plot line doesn’t have much to do with boys made me kind of happy. I found that a lot of books focus so much on the romance, it becomes boring and clichéd. I want to focus on the CHARACTERS and their personal developments. Romance is good when it’s done right and not in-your-face.
    Hilary recently posted…Review: The Theory of Everything

    • Peyton

      Yes, that was something I liked too. A few of the main girls have love interests, but (for the most part) they don’t have much to do with the story and don’t get a lot of page time. It’s definitely about the female characters and their problems.
      Peyton recently posted…Mortal Heart: review + giveaway

  6. Layla A

    Hmm, this has been on my to-read list for a while (I keep seeing it at the library on our designated new YA shelf). But now I am all kinds on interested in what the mysterious illness is? I mean, if it’s supposed to be kiiiiind of like the Salem Witch Trials, I bet I can figure it out, but you’ve made it sound like that storyline is actually set up as a red herring and that Mysterious Illness is really Mysterious.

    Also, please tell me that the ending isn’t like, “Surprise, everyone! The mysterious illness is actually ~*~love~*~.”

    Sigh. I’m interested! One more book to bump up my mental to-read list. Waaaah. But the intertextuality w/ the Crucible sounds super intriguing and, also, mysterious illness! woo!
    Layla A recently posted…The Martian

    • Wendy Darling

      Also, please tell me that the ending isn’t like, “Surprise, everyone! The mysterious illness is actually ~*~love~*~.”

      Hah hah, Layla.

    • Peyton

      No, don’t worry it’s not the power of love! And, after a while mysterious illness stopped sounding like words because it was always capitalized.

      It was really interesting, but I definitely felt like the Crucible and Salem Witch Trials was used more to make you think a certain way because the reason things happen in each story are different and the end of the contemporary story calls everything you thought was true into question. I’m glad I read it, but I’m still deciding how I feel about the ending.
      Peyton recently posted…Mortal Heart: review + giveaway

  7. Teen Underground

    Thanks for sharing your review! I’ve been intrigued by Conversion, but I haven’t moved it to the top of my list yet because I do keep hearing mixed reviews. Yours sheds some light on the pros and cons of the story and actually has me more excited to read it than I was previously :)
    Teen Underground recently posted…Teaser Tuesday!