The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
by Katherine Howe
After passing her Ph.D. qualifying examination, Connie Goodwin looks forward to a summer spent amongst dusty books, researching her dissertation. However, her mother has other plans for her, and Connie is thrust into her dead grandmother’s crumbling Marblehead home with the task of making it habitable once more – quite a challenge when one has no electricity or even a phone line. But the house soon proves to be quite lucky for Connie; she discovers a mysterious key hidden in an old book, and an unusual name: Deliverance Dane. With the encouragement of her professors she decides to pursue this mysterious woman and find out why Deliverance’s key ended up in her grandmother’s house, and the fate of a curious book that may contain the tincture, rituals and recipes of a real Salem witch.
The book actually flashes through the centuries in a double narrative, switching between Deliverance Dane and her descendents and Connie’s present-day research. The stories don’t mesh particularly well; I think the book would have been much stronger if Howe had elected to stick to just one time period. I found the historical periods to be stronger in terms of drama and a sense of atmosphere, but more time was given to Connie and her research.
Unfortunately, the main characters have a huge problem with information dumping. Some of it makes sense in the scene; Connie regurgitates entire textbooks for her Ph. D. exam. It may not be exciting, but in the context it’s not so strange. But in casual conversations with her mother, one of them will spend paragraphs talking about the ‘little ice age’ that affected New England at the end of the 17th century. It reads like sections of Wikipedia were lifted and paraphrased to fill up space.
Connie is also friggin’ DUMB. Howe lays clues about the fate of Deliverance’s book pretty thickly – I mean, she practically posts neon signs pointing to the thing – and Connie completely misses them. The villain also becomes painfully obvious quite early in the book – I think the only cliché he missed was twirling his moustache on his finger - but Connie doesn’t pick up on his role, either. She’s too busy mooning over sexy, gorgeous Sam, the hunky steeplejack who *gasp* is actually interested in her OMG ROMANCE!!! There’s a lot of focus on plot, and getting everybody moved along from A to B to C, but the development of characters’ histories was pretty weak.
As The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane chugs along down Predictable Plot Lane to the Obvious Outcome, the book takes a sudden swerve and goes spinning off into Fantasyland. It was almost as if the author realized that her story was getting a little predictable, maybe a little dull…so let’s toss some MAGIC in! Thinking back, the author had placed some clues that the book was planning to go in that direction…but shooting bolts of blue light from fingertips still seemed awfully out of place.
According to a note on the back of my review copy, this book was originally conceived as a NaNoWriMo project. There’s nothing wrong with that; I admire anyone who can finish the National Novel Writing Month challenge each November! (I tried a few years ago and failed miserably.) But I have also come to blame the hurried creation a NaNoWriMo project encourages for this book’s uneven plot and the unceremonious plopping of informational factoids.
Sigh. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I found the book entertaining. I was traveling in the Boston area as I read this, and it was fun to match the visuals of the world around me to the descriptions in the book. Elizabeth Howe has a lot of fun with words, and I think that as she continues to write she will mature into a fine storyteller.