Published by Putnam Children's on July 1, 2014
Genres: contemporary, historical
Pages: 402 pages
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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.