The book has over 500 reviews on Amazon, with a 4.1 star average rating. The five-star ratings account for 41% of those, which is reasonably impressive. My review isn't going to impact that very much, and that's not my intent.
This review will also be filled with spoilers. Consider yourself warned.
First major spoiler: The dog is okay. Nothing bad happens to him. There's another spoiler about him later.
I finished the book, which is more than I do with many of the books I start. Many of them don't hold me for two pages. So there's that.
I liked the premise: Academic Connie Goodwin inherits her grandmother's old house in what was Salem Village, Massachusetts, and goes on a search for a 300-year-old book with some connection to the Salem Witch Trials.
The writing was competent, if a little heavy on the description.
That said, it wasn't long before I began to have problems even as I continued reading.
Connie is a young woman, in her early to mid 20s, and she has been in school virtually all her life. The last few years in grad school have been by choice: she wants to continue to study and earn her PhD. She doesn't come across, however, as a dedicated scholar. Once she completes her oral exam and is cleared to begin her dissertation, she seems to forget all her academic training and lose all her scholarly motivation. Is it because it's summer break? It shouldn't be, because working on that dissertation should be her single primary focus now if she's truly dedicated to her scholarship.
However. . . .
She receives word from her mother Grace, a free spirit hippie type living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that the house that had belonged to Connie's grandmother, Sophia, needs to be prepared for sale after sitting vacant for 20 years since Sophia's death. Since the house is in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and Connie is at Harvard in Cambridge, she is delegated to the task for the summer. She heads there with her roommate Liz and her dog Arlo.
There's no real explanation for why the place wasn't sold when Sophia died or why it's being sold now.
It was at their arrival at the house that I lost my willing suspension of disbelief (WSOD).
Supposedly, back taxes haven't been paid for 20 years, but the town and/or county waived them. Uh, no, that doesn't happen. Taxes have to be paid. Period. There were ways author Howe could have devised to cover those taxes, but she took a sloppy way out that made no sense. WSOD went out the window.
The house is so decrepit and overgrown with vegetation that it literally cannot be seen from the road or driveway where Connie and Liz are parked. Arlo the dog uncovers the gate in the fence that ultimately leads to the house. Connie and Liz enter.
This is where I really gave up on WSOD. This little house has been empty, abandoned and untouched for 20 years. It's so decrepit that Connie sees a snake in the main floor hall, or living room. Some of the floor boards are so rotten that mushrooms are growing on them. There are dead plants in hanging pots, dead for two decades. Upholstered chairs are covered with dust, and probably mouse droppings as well, if there is even anything left of the upholstery.
There are two bedrooms on a second floor loft, each with a fourposter bed, the linens of which have not been changed for a score of years.
And yeah, I'm still thinking about that snake. At least the snake keeps me from thinking about spiders.
On the night of their arrival, Connie falls asleep in one of the chairs, but Liz goes up to the loft to sleep in one of those antique fourposters. There's no report that they made any attempt whatsoever to clean anything. (Toward the end of the book, mention is made that Liz took a sleeping bag and slept in it on the bed that first night. Why this wasn't mentioned at the time, I don't know. But still . . . spiders.)
No. Just no.
Throughout the book, which covers a period from late April to late October, 1991, Connie does almost nothing toward cleaning this house or preparing it for sale. She occasionally washes some jars and bottles found in the kitchen, and she does clean one or two of the needlepoint upholstered living room chairs. Sorry, but that's not enough.
Not even in 1991.
A modern young woman, even one who was raised on a commune, is not going to be comfortable living in 20-year-old filth.
Characters have to make sense. Connie didn't make sense. Somewhere halfway through the book, she kicks the mushroom growing through the floor. Hello?? Mushrooms don't last but a few days, so this means more than one mushroom has grown in the house. NO!
As a result of the living in filth issue, I lost any connection to the main character of the book. This is not good.
Could I have overlooked it? Could it have been justified? No. And that's a pretty strong condemnation.
Characters absolutely must be believable.
For Connie's first few weeks at the house in Marblehead, she made her phone calls from a pay phone in town. At no time, however, was there any mention of how she was paying for these calls, several of which were to her mother in New Mexico. Long distance calls on pay phones in the early 1990s were expensive propositions. It wasn't just a matter of dropping in a quarter and having unlimited minutes. At that point, I not only lost my WSOD for Connie, but I lost my faith in Howe as a researcher.
Though the book was published in 2009, the 1991 setting provides cover for certain technological details. Too much of Connie's research would have been too easy with the Internet developments of the twenty-first century. But that means Howe had to be faithful to 1991, and she wasn't.
She compounded that problem by doing two things.
The first was tiny, virtually imperceptible. She made one reference to a bit character's having a huge cellular phone. This had no relevance to the story and therefore jumped out like a leaping lizard, a huge signal reminding the reader that hey, this is 1991 before everyone had little tiny cell phones! I didn't like being hit over the head with that reminder.
The second was much more important.
The grandmother's house has no phone, so Connie has a phone installed. The overt observation is made that a rotary dial phone doesn't require additional electrical power, because the house has no electricity either.
So Connie has the financial resources to have the phone installed, though we're not told how she's going to pay for it She's a student, so we don't know where her income is coming from. Fellowships? Teaching? We don't know.
So she has the phone installed, requiring someone to come out and run wires through the overgrown jungle of wisteria and other vines and plants -- Connie has cleared none of it -- but she doesn't have any electricity installed. Now, this might be a bit of a stretch, but she continues to use oil lamps for light, when she could have purchased battery-operated lights. She doesn't. She's supposed to be doing research, and she doesn't want adequate light for reading, for writing notes?
Nope. She uses oil lamps in the summer when it's hot as hell.
And no one urges her to do otherwise.
Although there are hints that the house is very old, no specific details are given. There's a fireplace with a build-in bread oven. As an expert on colonial life, Connie should have been fascinated to be living in such a residence. It was also her grandmother's house, where her mother had grown up. Why did she not have any curiosity about how her mother lived in this house without electricity? Her mother, Grace, even mentions that the grandmother had a telephone for a while, but Connie never asks why did she have a phone but not electricity?
One of the reasons this is such a big deal and such a big inconsistency is that at some point in the house's history, it was plumbed for running water. There is an added-on kitchen with an iron cookstove and sink, and upstairs another addition with a bathtub and a toilet. When Connie and Liz arrive on that first night, the water is on. That means it must be either a municipal or a private commercial water supply system with a meter and a shut-off valve, which would not have been left on for twenty years. Are the pipes even safe? How old are they? Where is the water draining to? Is it a septic system or a municipal sewer system? Who's been paying the bills?
Most readers won't pay any attention to this, won't notice or worry about it. But that's no reason for the author to just ignore it.
The house, after all, is an important part of the story, and it bothered me all through the reading that Howe had done such a terrible job on it, and on Connie's relationship to it. The dust and dirt, the old jars of unidentified substances that she just blithely dumped onto a compost heap, and so on. No electricity, but relatively modern plumbing? The kitchen and bath were added on, but isn't Connie curious about what the house was like beforehand? How old it is? I guess not. Inconsistent and unexplained.
It's bad enough that Connie does so little about the house itself. It's worse that she does so little about her research. She never even researched the house's history, its ownership! She's supposed to be an expert on colonial history, and here she is living in a house in a village that goes back to colonial times and she doesn't even check out the deed for the property?
Oh, wait, that would spoil everything.
I hate books in which the author manipulates things for dramatic effect so that characters end up doing things they would never do if they were rational, sentient beings in real life.
On that first night in the house, Connie discovers an old bible which she identifies as seventeenth century. She has no curiosity about how her grandmother came into possession of this antique. When an old key falls out of the bible, Connie obtains what turns out to be the first clue to the existence of a book written by one Deliverance Dane, a woman who lived -- and supposedly died -- during the 1692 Salem witch hunt. Yes, that's a spoiler, because the real Deliverance Dane was not one of the individuals executed for witchcraft. Author Howe fudges on that, but she doesn't even bother to acknowledge it in her Postscript. Anyway, Connie learns about the existence of Deliverance Dane's book and realizes that it is crucial to her dissertation research.
If Dane had died on the scaffold, Connie should have known about it. The names and history of the Salem witch craze are well known and well documented. Connie does eventually find documentation that Dane was excommunicated, but never documentation of her execution! Nope, not consistent. Those Puritans kept records.
But instead of actually doing the research or even searching for the book itself, Connie does . . . nothing.
Howe's novel is broken into chapters that are set at "the end of June" or "early July," with quite lengthy gaps, sometimes a week, sometimes as much as a month, between the events depicted. What does Connie do during these periods? Apparently nothing. She doesn't have a job. She doesn't work on preparing the house to be sold. She doesn't do research. And she doesn't look for the physick book of Deliverance Dane.
Other reviewers noted the absurdity of Connie, the PhD candidate, who doesn't seem to recognize that receipt and recipe are two spellings of the same word. There are a gazillion other things she doesn't seem to recognize that most well-informed readers would. But as crucial as the book is to her academic career, why isn't she actively looking for it?? This makes no sense.
It makes even less sense toward the end of the book.
Connie acquires a boyfriend, Sam Hartley. They spend a night together in the old house -- dear heaven, did she EVER wash those linens? -- and the next day Sam falls from a steeple in the church he's painting. He suffers a severe injury and also comes down with a mysterious malady that causes him to have violent seizures and uncontrolled vomiting. He is literally strapped into a hospital bed to keep the seizures from doing more damage to his broken leg.
Now, I'm not a medical professional, but wouldn't this kind of restraint put him at risk of choking to death on his own vomit if he were flat on his back?
Okay, that's gross enough to consider, but it didn't get written into the story. I felt it should have been, and by its absence, I began to doubt Howe's research even more. (She herself was supposedly a PhD candidate. Hmmm.....)
Connie somehow figures out that Sam is the victim of witchcraft. Now her need to find Deliverance Dane's book is even more urgent.
Sam's accident happens between the end of July and the beginning of August, according to Howe's chapter headings. At this time, Connie has learned the approximate location of the physick book -- somewhere in Harvard's library -- but does not have her hands on it yet. Even though she believes it may hold the key to Sam's recovery, she doesn't go looking for it.
The next chapter is labeled mid-August, so Sam has been in the hospital for give or take two weeks, slowly dying of either poisoning or a curse, and Connie is just moping around her old, dirty, dark house. For two weeks?? When she could have gone back to Cambridge and looked for the book???
Now, there are two other things that need to be mentioned here. The first is that Connie has discovered she can do magic/witchcraft. Without going back to the book and looking up the details -- which I may do later -- she accidentally charms a dandelion seed so that it sprouts and grows and blooms and dies in her hand in a matter of seconds. It all has to do with some recipe cards her grandmother wrote out, which may be recipes or may be spells. But if Connie has this power, how come it never manifested itself before?
The second is that someone has burned or branded a complex witchcraft symbol onto the front door of the house. When Connie first discovers this horrible thing, I was afraid something had happened to Arlo the dog, but instead it's this image on the door. She thinks it's a curse or hex, but doesn't research it. Sound familiar? Eventually, through some help from her friend Liz, she learns that it's much more likely to be a protection spell than a curse. The source is never identified conclusively.
So she goes back to the house and tries her magic on one of the dead plants, and within seconds it comes back to flourishing life, green and lush.
Connie still doesn't go looking for the book. She plays around with some other witchcraft stuff. Meanwhile, Sam is dying. When she finally figures out what's going on, she tells the dog Arlo that she now knows what she has to do.
A week or two later she finally starts doing it.
The next section is identified as taking place in "late August," so even giving Connie the benefit of the doubt that this isn't the tail end of August, she's at least been dawdling for a week or ten days since her revelation the middle of the month. Sam has now been in the hospital for nearly a month.
So in late August -- the 25th? the 28th? the 31st? -- Connie finally, finally, finally acquires Deliverance Dane's Book of Physick. The special collections library let her check out this 300-plus year old book and take it home with her. Riiiiiight. But does she do anything with it? Is she worried enough about Sam to take action?
Not until "early September."
Author Howe's imprecision rankles. The 27th day of August would be considered "late" in the month; the 4th day of September would still be "early" in the month, even though more than a week separates the two days. Would Connie have waited a whole week to effect her witchy cure of her lover?
It's not just the long or vague passages of time that irritate the close reader; it's also the inconsistency. Some of the chapters are very precisely dated. The 3rd of July, for one. Many of the sections that present the seventeenth and eighteenth century portraits of Deliverance Dane and other historical characters are given by month and date. If Howe's intention was to reverse-telescope the action to spread it out over the summer so that Connie's adventures were framed by the academic vacation, couldn't she have done it better? I kept thinking that she could have.
At the same time that all this was bothering me, I was very much aware of how and why a book like this would have acquired best-seller status and hundreds of great ratings on Amazon -- it's a good story. Most readers aren't writers and have no clue how novels are constructed. They don't see yawning plot holes or egregious anachronisms. They stumble through crude attempts at phonetically reproduced dialect, or they skip over them. (Howe's attempt at New England dialect is terrible. Anyone who hasn't actually heard it -- and with mass media's homogenization of language, that may be questionable -- would probably not be able to figure out a lot of it, especially when Howe uses more than one phonetic spelling for the same word!.)
Who was at fault for all this? Well, certainly as the author Howe has to take a huge responsibility. But so do all the editors who handled this book along the way. Because there are all kinds of ways these problems could have been fixed.
So whether Connie waits one day or eight days or something in between or something even longer to put her newfound magical knowledge to work, even when she does she never exhibits any real sense of urgency. There's very little emotion around Connie. Very little curiosity. Very little passion.
On page 308, Connie collects certain items in the house that she needs for her witchcraft and puts them in her purse. It is still "early September." There is then another seventeenth century "interlude," before we pick up Connie again, still in "early September," as she acquires the rest of the materials necessary to the process of casting the spell or spells that she hopes will bring about Sam's recovery.
When she finally, finally begins the actual casting of the spell, we are at the autumnal equinox! Has she waited as long as three weeks to do this? Or even just two weeks, if we stretch "early September" to the 7th of the month? Sam has been lying in this hospital bed, dying of who knows what and dehydration -- don't they have him on intravenous fluids or something? -- for almost two months!
If it's a matter of hoping readers pay no attention to the chapter headings, then why have them?
At that autumnal equinox point, the book had become a figurative wallbanger for me. I realized I was reading less for the story and more to see how badly the author had screwed it up.
Connie casts the spell, following the directions in this 300-plus year old book that she's borrowed from the library. The spell works by bringing the true malefactor to Connie. It's her slimy, suspicious-from-page-one mentor, Manning Chilton.
Chilton is one of those characters, or rather caricatures, who is so obvious from the very beginning that it's laughable. He reminded me of Leigh Teabing from The DaVinci Code. Just too smarmy and one-dimensional. All through this fictional summer, he's been pressuring Connie to find the book, and she never gets suspicious. She even overhears a suspicious phone call and doesn't get suspicious!
But here's the thing: Chilton has apparently also been looking for the book, and he's had better access to the library for years and years than she has. If the book was there, why hadn't Chilton found it himself?
(This device is similar to the manuscript at the heart of Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches, except that at least Harkness provides some explanation for why her character is the only one able to find/access it.)
The spell draws Chilton to the old house, where he confronts Connie and demands that she give him the book, this 300-plus year old manuscript that she's borrowed from the library. Now that she knows witchcraft is real and that she has some kind of remarkable powers, she can't allow him to have it, even though she knows he doesn't have the power to use the knowledge in it. Even so, rather than let him have it, she throws the ancient book of physick into the fire, like the One Ring.
Chilton is exposed and ultimately self-destructs, to be relieved of his position as head of the history department. Sam recovers, and Connie goes on to success with her dissertation. Her mother Grace decides to leave Santa Fe and return to Marblehead and the old house, which Sam begins to restore, claiming it was built of good materials and therefore built to last.
And at the end, as the good guys are celebrating their happily ever afters on Halloween, Connie reveals that the library has a microfilm record of the book so all is not lost.
Well, duh, then why didn't she just access that and not destroy the original? Why in the name of all that's magical and holy did the library ever let the book out of their possession?
Last fall, when a bunch of us on BookLikes did a group read and analysis of Barbara Michaels's Ammie, Come Home, we found so many errors that the book became more laughable than scary. But Michaels went on to sell gazillions of books. The aforementioned A Discovery of Witches was likewise a huge commercial success, even though many careful readers found it almost unreadable. (I got through maybe 150 pages before I gave up.) Katherine Howe has gone on to write several more best-selling books. So it's not as if poorly written books can't become popular or mediocre writers become successful.
But it's very discouraging when these things happen. And I think it's also worth taking the time to do the analysis so that other writers can, perhaps, avoid the same mistakes and then go on to even better success.
Author Howe posits that witchcraft and magic are real. Connie uses witchcraft to identify Professor Chilton's evil deeds and to cure Sam Hartley. Did her mother use magic to brand the protective symbol onto the door of the old house? We don't know. Is Arlo the dog more than just a stray mutt who attached himself to Connie one day? Is he, in fact, her witch's familiar, and does he have a generational connection to the old house as well? We don't know. It's easy to suppose so, and I guess that's okay.
But the bottom line was that I ended up not liking this book at all. I wanted the story to have been written better. I wanted the character of Connie to have been more three dimensional, more consistent, more realistic. I wanted Katherine Howe and her editors to have done a better job with what I thought could have been a really great story.