These Shallow Graves: Review

October 7, 2015 2015, 3 star books, historical 7 ★★★

These Shallow Graves: ReviewThese Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly
Published by Delacorte Press, Random House on October 27, 2015
Genres: historical, mystery
Pages: 496 pages
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
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From Jennifer Donnelly, the critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of A Northern Light and Revolution, comes a mystery about dark secrets, dirty truths, and the lengths to which people will go for love and revenge. For fans of Elizabeth George and Libba Bray, These Shallow Graves is the story of how much a young woman is willing to risk and lose in order to find the truth.

Jo Montfort is beautiful and rich, and soon—like all the girls in her class—she’ll graduate from finishing school and be married off to a wealthy bachelor. Which is the last thing she wants. Jo dreams of becoming a writer—a newspaper reporter like the trailblazing Nellie Bly.

Wild aspirations aside, Jo’s life seems perfect until tragedy strikes: her father is found dead. Charles Montfort shot himself while cleaning his pistol. One of New York City’s wealthiest men, he owned a newspaper and was a partner in a massive shipping firm, and Jo knows he was far too smart to clean a loaded gun.

The more Jo hears about her father’s death, the more something feels wrong. Suicide is the only logical explanation, and of course people have started talking, but Jo’s father would never have resorted to that. And then she meets Eddie—a young, smart, infuriatingly handsome reporter at her father’s newspaper—and it becomes all too clear how much she stands to lose if she keeps searching for the truth. But now it might be too late to stop.

The past never stays buried forever. Life is dirtier than Jo Montfort could ever have imagined, and this time the truth is the dirtiest part of all.

If you enjoy historical fiction with a spunky female lead, some romance, and a murder mystery thrown in for good measure, you might want to pick up Jennifer Donnelly’s latest book, These Shallow Graves.

I admit, I was lured in by the promise of a spunky female lead in this case – a girl who secretly dreams of being a writer and defying societal expectations! – ’cause that’s my jam all the time. In turn-of-the-century America, no less! (An aside: my love for American history has been totally revitalized by the release of the soundtrack for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical, by the way. And this is … a century later! Where’s my Revolutionary War YA when I need it?)

Anyway. Ahem. Back to business!

Despite the spunky female lead, while I liked many aspects of These Shallow Graves, I didn’t connect with it emotionally in the way that I wanted to. The book felt more plot-driven than character-driven to me, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – I just know that I’m always more interested in character development in any given story. This is to say that while I was always very interested in Jo’s doings – i.e., her attempts to figure out who murdered her father and unravel the greater mystery connected to his death! her travels with Eddie, handsome reporter love interest extraordinaire, around New York City! – I didn’t feel invested in her as a character. Which was super weird, because I’m normally pretttty darn invested in female heroines who are torn between their family’s expectations and their own desires for a different existence (in Jo’s case, to be a reporter like Nellie Bly). But in Jo’s case? Not so much.

I think part of this is because I felt like I was being told rather than shown how deeply Jo cared for certain characters – like her father, for example, who’s murdered at the beginning of the book – without having much of a chance to see those feelings unfold in the narrative. (I know you’re telling me she loves him! But her confusion over her father’s death drives the entire story, so I really wanted more of an emotional connection to him.) This was also true of Jo’s relationship with Eddie Gallagher, the young reporter whose help she enlists in the hunt for her father’s killer. I know in theory why they like each other – they read the same books! they share the same ideals! they find each other reasonably attractive! – but I never felt like I was watching them develop greater emotional intimacy or anything. When Jo becomes fast friends with Fay, a young woman who’s a thief, again, their instant connection happens that quickly – they have a conversation, Fay rescues Jo, and bam, they’re best buddies. I wanted more! More time for that relationship to unfold, more conversation, more feelings. You know I love a good female friendship, and I was sadly dissatisfied with this one.

Even though I don’t really read for plot, I was also disappointed in how easy it was to figure out the mystery in this one in particular. This made reading a little frustrating at times. While I understand Jo’s motivations for taking action, plot-wise, I also wanted her to figure out things much more quickly than she did. View Spoiler »

One final thing that troubled me about These Shallow Graves: View Spoiler »

Here’s what I did like about the book: I liked some of the scenes around the marriage market in the book, and Jo’s slow realization that her seemingly perfect engagement will kill her spirit and stifle her curiosity. I liked the way the novel distinguishes between gender roles both within a given social class and between social classes (Jo’s ability to navigate the city vs. Bram’s, the man she’s supposed to marry; Jo’s relationship to the city v. Fay’s). I also liked the way that Jo’s family motto –  “fac quod faciendum est” / “do what must be done” – was constantly repeated in the narrative, until it transforms into something sinister by the end of the novel. I liked the shout-out to Edith Wharton! I liked many of the secondary characters – Oscar, Sarah, even Grandmamma – enough to wish that I’d gotten more time with them, too.

All things considered, I enjoyed reading These Shallow Graves, but I wasn’t blown away by it. I’d still definitely think about reading Donnelly’s other historical fiction, though? I’ve heard good things about it. I just felt like this book skimped on character development in favor of crafting an intricate mystery. And as a reader, I prefer feelings in abundance.

Is anyone else looking forward to this one? Have you read it? If so, what did you think?

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An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.

7 Responses to “These Shallow Graves: Review”

  1. Keertana @ Ivy Book Bindings

    I completely see how you wouldn’t enjoy this if you didn’t connect with the main character but I really wound up loving it. I hope Donnelly’s next novel works out better for you because her strong feminist message is so empowering and worth hearing. Also: the swoon factor! ;)
    Keertana @ Ivy Book Bindings recently posted…Monthly Rewind: September

  2. Carina Olsen

    Gorgeous review Layla. <3 I'm glad you liked this book, despite not loving it. The cover looks so so so pretty. But yeah. I don't think I will ever read this book :) Not loving the main character is such a disappointment :\ I'm sorry it wasn't that good. But your review is awesome :D
    Carina Olsen recently posted…Waiting on Wednesday #208

    • Layla

      Oh, I agree. It took me for-ev-er to get into it. I’m not sure why – I mean, the novel opens as they are *digging up a body,* you wouldn’t imagine that that would in anyway constitute a slow beginning, and yet? It was hard for me to get into and get through. I thought it might just be because I wasn’t getting what I wanted – feels! more feels – but it’s still good to hear that others felt similarly.
      Layla recently posted…These Shallow Graves: Review