Saturday, April 14, 2012

Trollope and dim-witted witches

Finished Phineas Finn. The political stuff got a little more interesting toward the end, but I still glazed occasionally.

Then I read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe. I wanted to like it, even though I have friends who found it very disappointing. I mean: witchcraft! Salem! Hunting through libraries for an old book! It should work! It doesn't.

(There are spoilers all over the place ahead, because I don't recommend you read the book.)

A large part of the problem is our heroine. When we are introduced to her, we are told that she just presented the most brilliant Ph.D. defense in Harvard's history, but what we are shown for the rest of the book is someone really, really slow on the uptake. The most egregious example is when she, hunting for the lost "physick book", finds the journal of Deliverance Dane's daughter, and discovers an entry that reads, "Mother asked about her almanack. Angry to hear I gave it to Social Lib."

"To the Social Library!" says the reader.

Says our heroine: "What is it about this entry that feels important? Why would it? What could a mention of an 'almanack' possibly have to do with my quest for a book?" (I'm not exaggerating at all. That is exactly what we are told the character is thinking.) Her mental gears then grind for forty pages before she puts two and two together, and when she does it's presented as her nascent witch powers providing intuition, not as an ability to grasp synonyms for the word "book". The unforgivable offense here is that Howe thinks her readers are no smarter. It's like Dan Brown assuming that his readers won't know Leonardo da Vinci wrote in mirror image, and so he can have a Leonardo da Vinci expert not know that. "I'm sure my readers won't know that an 'almanack' could refer to a book, so I don't have to have my doctoral candidate in American history know that!" Seriously, Howe? What do you think we think an almanac IS? A wall calendar? A raincoat? What?  

You are an author. I am a reader. I am trusting you with my time and attention. What I ask in return is that you trust me to be at least as intelligent as you are. Why would you want to write for me if you don't think I am?

Our heroine's evil advisor (that isn't even really a spoiler, unless you are a Harvard doctoral candidate, because apparently they are a slow breed) is after her to find the book so he can take it from her, and at no point did I understand why he thought this would be faster than finding it himself. Her "hunt" consists of rambling around Salem with her love interest most of the time, and clues have to literally fall out of bookcases into her magical destined hands for her to find them.

The book is set in two time periods: the late 1600's and 1991. The period pieces are okay except for when any character opens his or her mouth, because Howe decided to write the dialogue in heavy Ye Olde Dialect and with a phonetically-indicated colonial Boston accent. It's unreadable. The modern setting appears to have chosen in order to eliminate computers from the search. I don't think this was necessary; one of my friends is a historian, and she has spent several of the last few years in archives with original sources. I do not think there was much googling involved. The other problem is that our heroine and her love interest are supposed to be attractive sexy young people, and I can tell you with all the authority of someone who was a fourteen-year-old girl in 1991 that no one in the world was attractive that year (Eddie Vedder came close, but you could just tell he smelled awful). When we're told that the love interest looks like he should be in a grunge band, I gagged a little bit.

Also, the end? The blocking? What is happening? First our heroine is tearing up herbs with both hands (including a mandrake root, which I don't think tears easily), but then with no transition she's holding the book to her chest, and then suddenly it's a "manuscript" of only a few pages instead, and then she throws it on the fire, but at the very end she claims the book is fine and hidden in the library...? What?

So. Not impressed.

Launched myself cheerfully back on the good ship Trollope, with The Eustace Diamonds, which I believe was my favorite of the series when I was a teenager. Lizzie Eustace is just vile, but fascinating, in a way Becky Sharp never was for me. It's such fun.

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