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The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane Hardcover – Bargain Price, June 9, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Set in Cambridge and Marblehead, Mass., Howe's propulsive if derivative novel alternates between the 1991 story of college student Connie Goodwin and a group of 17th-century outcasts. After moving into her grandmother's crumbling house to get it in shape for sale, Connie comes across a small key and piece of paper reading only Deliverance Dane. The Salem witch trials, contemporary Wicca and women's roles in early American history figure prominently as Connie does her academic detective work. What follows is a breezy read in which Connie must uncover the mystery of a shadowy book written by the enigmatic Deliverance Dane. During Connie's investigation, she relies on a handsome steeplejack for romance and her mother and an expert on American colonial history for clues and support. While the twisty plot and Howe's habit of ending chapters with cliffhangers are straight out of the thriller playbook, the writing is solid overall, and Howe's depiction of early American life and the witch trials should appeal to readers who enjoyed The Heretic's Daughter. The witchcraft angle and frenetic pacing beg for a screen adaptation. (June)
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*Starred Review* Harvard graduate student Connie Godwin is determination personified. She will get her doctorate and find success as a historian, whether her aura-reading mother understands her bookishness or not. But first she has to contend with her tweedy adviser’s oddly urgent demands and her late grandmother’s incredibly old, long-abandoned house in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The house is cloaked in vines and stuffed with dusty old bottles and books, but its clutter yields a tantalizing scrap of paper carrying the words “Deliverance Dane.” Connie hasn’t a clue, but the reader knows, thanks to alternating chapters set in the late-seventeenth century, that Deliverance was a good woman accused of being a witch during the infamous Salem witch hysteria. Soon Connie, admirably sensible in the face of mystifying, even terrifying occurrences, zealously searches archives and libraries for healer Deliverance’s “shadow book,” while struggling to understand her own weird, new powers. Historian Howe’s spellbinding, vividly detailed, witty, and astutely plotted debut is deeply rooted in her family connection to accused seventeenth-century witches Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth Proctor and propelled by an illuminating view of witchcraft. In all a keen and magical historical mystery laced with romance and sly digs at society’s persistent underestimation of women. --Donna Seaman
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The modern-day parts of Howe's story, set in 1991, resemble other stories that reinterpret history for a modern setting, such as Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian" or Dan Brown's "Angels & Demons". Certain parts of the modern story fall into cliché, such as the skeptic who turns out to have powers, parts of the romantic subplot, and the identity of the modern antagonist, but the historical elements combined with Howe's romanticized portrayal of her protagonist's research are endearing enough that the clichés never grow tiresome.
"The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane" will appeal to those interested in the history of Salem or general witchcraft history as well as fans of historical fiction. Howe's writing is an excellent introduction to the academic history of Salem for non-historians and the fantasy elements will entertain even those who do not enjoy history.
It reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, but with a less skilled protagonist. And though vampires certainly appeared in "new" twists in fiction, the Salem witch trials felt equally overdone to me. Nothing felt new about this book. And though it was easy to see why the author chose this topic (two of her relatives stood accused in the Trials - one even, who makes a cameo in the novel, was condemned to death), the mix of magic and scholarly mystery never flowed together for me. It felt forced and artificial. I never once felt swept into the story and other than the magical dog, I never felt worried or particularly invested in any of the characters' fates.
And on the topic of that dog, the book displayed some abrupt inconsistencies with the perspective. Arlo's viewpoint was used a few times (mostly to avoid romantic scenes, it seemed) and towards the end, even a rat's POV was offered.
But, my biggest problem with the book could lay entirely at the feet of this one sentence: "Like a lot of people who are known only by nicknames, Connie tended to forget that she had any connection to that word." As someone who also is known only by a nickname and who is married to someone known only by a nickname, I must attest to the sheer ridiculous convenience of the way that Connie managed to forget her first name for two months (when all along she must have been using it daily on her IDs and signing into all of these rather negatively represented archives and libraries)...
I really wanted to like the book, and though I never hated it, its elements never gelled for me. It will be interesting to see what the rest of the book club thought of it, though!