A spellbinding, beautifully written novel that moves between contemporary times and one of the most fascinating and disturbing periods in American history - the Salem witch trials.
Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she can't refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers an ancient key within a seventeenth-century Bible. The key contains a yellowing fragment of parchment with a name written upon it: Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest--to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact of singular power: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.
As the pieces of Deliverance's harrowing story begin to fall into place, Connie is haunted by visions of the long-ago witch trials, and she begins to fear that she is more tied to Salem's dark past then she could have ever imagined.
Written with astonishing conviction and grace, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane travels seamlessly between the witch trials of the 1690s and a modern woman's story of mystery, intrigue, and revelation.
"It would appear that we are nearly out of time," announced Manning Chilton, one glittering eye fixed on the thin pocket watch chained to his vest. He surveyed the other four faces that ringed the conference table. "But we are not quite done with you yet, Miss Goodwin."
Whenever Chilton felt especially pleased with himself his voice became ironic, bantering: an incongruous affectation that grated on his graduate students. Connie picked up on the shift in his voice immediately, and she knew then that her qualifying examination was finally drawing to a close. A sour hint of nausea bubbled up in the back of her throat, and she swallowed. The other professors on the panel smiled back at Chilton.
Through her anxiety, Connie Goodwin felt a flutter of satisfaction tingle somewhere in her chest, and she permitted herself to bask in the sensation for a moment. If she had to guess, she would have said that the exam was going ...
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
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