Katherine Howe's debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, is part historical fiction, part modern-day mystery, and part romance; unfortunately, it's a combination that Howe can't quite seem to weave into an engaging story.
The parts of the book that deal with Puritan midwife Deliverance Dane and her descendants contain some of the most convincing historical fiction I've encountered. Howe's detailed research and her love of the subject come through on every page; she sheds new light on a period of American history that has already had countless books written about it – not an easy feat to accomplish. The chapters that focus on earlier centuries are about much more than the Salem Witch Trials, though; they paint a vivid picture of what life was like for colonial women in the New World, particularly those with a gift for healing. Here, Howe writes with great depth and originality, drawing her readers into the story completely. These top-notch historical fiction sections are likely the reason the book is garnering so much attention.
I find that I can't recommend the novel whole-heartedly, however, as readers will have to overlook some relatively serious literary flaws to find it
enjoyable. I can't remember the last time I encountered a work with a plot as
utterly banal as is the one underlying the modern-day sections of The Physick
Book of Deliverance Dane. There is not a single element of the story that
the reader can't see coming a mile away. Amazingly, the current sections are
more predictable than those dealing with the Salem Witch Trials – and most
readers are well acquainted with the trials' outcomes. That misstep might be forgivable if her main character, an otherwise strong, intelligent woman, didn't come across as completely oblivious to unfolding events; it frustrates the reader to watch this character be utterly shocked by the obvious. The romance
the heroine embarks upon is likewise lackluster.
Also detracting from the fine historical fiction is the one-dimensionality of Howe's present-day characters. The author breathes such life into Deliverance Dane and her daughter, Mercy, and yet somehow can't manage the same with the
other entities she creates. Several major characters are nothing but caricatures, as flat as cardboard.
Finally, the book drifts from historical fiction into the realm of fantasy as the magic becomes real and it becomes apparent that Deliverance and her descendants had some sort of paranormal ability. I personally felt this weakened the book; Howe's forays into history felt very believable, but injecting an element of the mystical into these sections made them seem much less so. Some readers, however, may discover this additional facet of the book adds interest and will find it entertaining rather than objectionable.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a quick read, and probably a good
choice for those looking for a "beach book" that's a bit apart from the norm.
Its fast pace and interesting portrayal of life in the 17th century makes it worth perusing, but it is likely those wanting a well-written historical mystery will find it unsatisfying. - Kim Kovacs
Recent Reader Reviews
Rated of 5
by Sally N
Not Your Average Salem Witch Story
I found this story absolutely fascinating. Set in the current time period and written in a style both elegant and entertaining, Howe skillfully weaves a tale of mystery, romance and a discovery of untold family secrets. This book left me hungry for... Read More