Friday, June 19, 2009

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe

Picked this one up after seeing highly positive reviews, as well as a major push placement at Barnes & Noble. How do you evaluate a book apart from the marketing push behind it? It's not easy--would I have liked this book better if I had just stumbled on it? Hard to tell.

Our Heroine Connie Goodwin is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, under some pressure to come up with her thesis topic. She is simultaneously saddled with clearing out her grandmother's house and selling it after it has stood empty for over 20 years. Over the summer, she discovers the name "Deliverance Dane" on a piece of parchment rolled into the barrel of a key hidden in an old Bible in her grandmother's house and she embarks on a quest to find out about her. In the course of her summer she meets a convenient love interest (single, handsome, a restoration expert who dabbles in history). She tracks the existence of Deliverance Dane's physick book, also tracking several of the women of her family.

I would call this an "academic thriller" of the type that A.S. Byatt did so well in "Possession;" a major component of the book is Connie's research through various libraries. Byatt made this exciting and fascinating. Howe doesn't. Connie's first research challenge is to look through 17th century church records to locate some reference to Deliverance Dane. She has no information about this person's age, her marital status, or her family connections. So why does she start with baptismal records? That requires the unwarranted assumption that "Deliverance Dane" was an infant, born in Salem, rather than a married woman's name. If "Dane" was her married name, it would NEVER appear in baptismal records. After the baptismal records, she looks through death records, spending hours and hours on these documents that are statistically unlikely to give her the answers she is looking for. Then she is about to give up, dissuaded only by the steeplejack she just met, and then she FINALLY looks at the church membership records.

I'm already yelling at the book "look at the damn membership records" and I'm less than a quarter of the way through the book. Look, I understand that Howe is trying to build suspense, and she can't assume that her readership knows the difference between the different 17th century documents--but seriously? If you don't know anything about this person, why wouldn't you look at the most general documents first? "Dane" could be a birth name or a married name. She could have been born and married before arriving in Salem. She could have left Salem before she died. But the odds are best that for whatever time she was in Salem, she went to church.

Of course, that's where the name turns up--only as "excommunicated" in 1692, the year of the Salem witch hysteria. Suddenly, it appears that Deliverance Dane might have been a witch.

Which doesn't explain why Connie's advisor has started pressing her to come up with a thesis topic, and is pressuring her to find this "physick book" before she has any inkling of it. As a newly discovered original document, this would have been an entirely new source for historical thought--no such book has been located in America to date. What happens is that it turns out that Deliverance Dane actually was a witch, and the recipies actually work.

Connie's advisor has also gotten odd, and seems to believe that the Philosopher's Stone actually exists, and that he can find the final formulation of it in this book. Not clear where he got this idea, or why he felt he could stake his professional reputation on it even before Connie found the key, but there you go. Not clear how Deliverance Dane's decendants did magic for 300 years with huge blue sparks shooting everywhere and nobody noticed. Not clear if Howe was gunning for a "Da Vinci Code" type reveal when she concludes that the "Philosopher's Stone" was actually St. Peter--the "rock" on which Jesus said he would build his church. If she was, she sure buried her lede on that one.

I have several major quibbles with this book--Connie's research is remarkably lackadaisical, which totally works against the deadline Howe has tried to set up. Her love interest Sam is in medical crisis, and she rushes home to read the physick book; then inexplicably WAITS TWO WEEKS before she does anything to help him. Do we believe that a Harvard grad student doesn't even remember her real name is "Constance?"

Some of the writing is lovely--her meditation on night starting under bushes and trees, then rising to meet the sky--elegant and whimsical. The book skips back in time to "interludes" of the lives of Deliverance Dane, her daughter and grand-daughter, who come alive as vivid characters. Connie herself remains more of a construct than a character, however, and her "discovery" of her own magic is clumsy and fails to engage the suspension of disbelief necessary to the working of the plot.

Would I recommend it? Only if you think the idea that at least some of the Salem witches were actually practicing witchcraft is novel. Only if you have money burning a hole in your pocket and nothing better to spend it on. Otherwise, get it from the library, or wait for the paperback.