Still With the Books

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I saw this in a bookstore, and liked the look of the book—it had a great-looking cover and trade dress that seemed to promised something rich and textured, a book that would take you somewhere and bring it to life well.
And sure, you can’t tell a book by its cover and all that, but it was enough to make me pick up the book, read a paragraph or two, check out the flap copy. I downloaded the Kindle sample later, and wound up buying the book.
The book design was partly accurate and partly misleading—at least, to my sensibilities. The book did take me to an interesting, textured, convincing place that was worth going to, but the story it told once you got there wasn’t the equal of the setting, I’d say. Still, it was a pleasant-enough read, and I’m not sorry to have picked it up.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, a first novel, tells a two-track story. The modern-day track is set in 1991, and deals with Connie Goodwin, a graduate student in American history, working on her dissertation. She winds up having to deal with an old house in Marblehead, Massachusetts that belonged to her grandmother, and while doing so becomes embroiled in a mystery that may well fuel her academic work—a mystery centered around a book, which may be a recipe book and may be a grimoire, written by a woman named Deliverance Dane, back in the days of the Salem Witch Trials.
The other track is the tale of Deliverance Dane and her descendants, enduring those days and the society that spawned them. The novel jumps back and forth in time, telling the parallel narrative as Connie researches the Danes and learns about the troubles they faced. Early on, the question is raised as to whether Deliverance is merely thought to be a witch by an ignorant and superstitious populace, or whether there’s real magic going on—and this being the kind of book it is, of course there’s real magic going on, and its effects finds its way through history to Connie Goodwin’s present.
The worlds presented in the book—Connie’s scholarly world and her tangles dealing with her grandmother’s house, and the 17th century life of the Danes—are well-written, well-realized and full of interesting texture and detail. The plot of the novel, though, is less so. There’s a villain, and you can spot him instantly, and see his schemes from a mile off—it would make you wonder why Connie can’t tell, except that Connie’s not aware that she’s the lead in a fantasy novel, so she has no reason to be looking for a villain driving the plot (and, for that matter, no awareness that there’s actually magic at stake here until the threat has developed pretty well). And there’s a romance, and as soon as the guy comes on stage for the appropriate meet-cute, you know this is The Romance and you know how it’s going to go, and sure enough it does. And there’s a plot twist about the magic that feels like it came straight out of Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, and it, too, is fairly obvious from the minute the story begins to hint at it.
But in the end, the book’s not about the plot or the romance—they’re there to give it a structure, to provide us with a compelling reason for why Connie’s researching this particular past, and why it matters to the present day. So the fact that it’s kind of mechanical and obvious doesn’t damage the book all that much—this is one of those books where it’s not the destination or even the specific journey that matters, but the scenery you get along the way. The plot may not be much, but the context is fascinating, the writing itself is reasonably accomplished and the places the book takes the reader are interesting; the plot’s just there to provide some bones under the skin and keep the story from wandering aimlessly.
And there are some very nice resonances between the two threads of the story, and a touch or two that does work out to be surprising (or at least, that dawn on the reader appropriately and satisfyingly).
Overall, it was an enjoyable read, and the novel’s strengths suggest that Howe knows what she’s doing and should be someone to watch in future books, while its weaknesses are excusable in a first novel. With luck, she’ll improve her plotting while continuing to write about interesting settings and situations. I’ll be glad to check out her next novel, at least.

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