These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly
Pub. Date: October 27, 2015
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, Delacorte!)

Set in gilded age New York, These Shallow Graves follows the story of Josephine Montfort, an American aristocrat. Jo lives a life of old-money ease. Not much is expected of her other than to look good and marry well. But when her father dies due to an accidental gunshot, the gilding on Jo’s world starts to tarnish. With the help of a handsome and brash reporter, and a young medical student who moonlights in the city morgue, Jo uncovers the truth behind her father’s death and learns that if you’re going to bury the past, you’d better bury it deep.

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Mystery

“If you’re going to bury the past, bury it deep, girl. Shallow graves always give up their dead.”

1890s New York. Seventeen-year-old Josephine Montfort is the socialite’s socialite. Born into a wealthy family and practically engaged to the city’s most eligible bachelor, Jo seems to have it all: once she marries Bram she’ll be set for life. She’ll start a family and spend her days entertaining guests. …only, Jo would rather be a daring reporter like Nellie Bly, eager to go to any length to get to the bottom of a story – and the truth. Unfortunately for Jo, ladies aren’t meant to have fanciful ideas about careers.

Everything changes the night she receives word her father has died. For all appearances, it’s a clear-cut suicide. However Jo refuses to believe that and makes a promise to dig deeper, to discover what happened to her beloved father. Could he really have taken his own life…or was it taken by someone else?

Let’s take a look at that cover. Spooky, yes? That’s certainly what I thought when I first heard about These Shallow Graves. I saw that cover and was convinced I found the perfect Halloween read! While I still enjoyed it, I can’t help but feel a little misguided – I imagined a dark, creepy tale with perhaps a little bit of the paranormal thrown in. Instead I got a story that’s 100% historical fiction where the only ‘spooky’ scenes come in the form of visits to the town morgue.

These Shallow Graves is my introduction to Jennifer Donnelly. While I’ve heard of and have come across several of her other novels (A Northern Light, The Tea Rose, and Deep Blue) it’s These Shallow Graves that I’ve started with and I’m a fan! She clearly does her research to the point where the city came alive: both uptown and downtown. Streets where the Who’s Who gather and alleys where you’d do best to avoid. Donnelly has a way of breathing life into her settings, so much so that they became characters themselves and that is truly the mark of a masterful author.

When Jo makes the decision to investigate her father’s death she enlists the help of a young reporter, Eddie. Word of caution: if you’re not a fan of instalove, you should probably avoid this book. The moment these two meet, the heavens move and the stars realign themselves. One of my all-time favorite guilty pleasure tropes is a relationship that involves a class/status difference, but Donnelly pulled all the stops here: every cliche you could think of finds its way into These Shallow Graves‘ pages, including a locked-inside-a-tiny-closet scene. I wanted to cheer them on, but I never really bought into their attraction for one another. Jo herself even questions his motives after her uncle mentions a conversation he overheard. Apparently Eddie told a fellow reporter he was only using a girl for his own personal gain and once I heard that, I completely believed it. Multiple times he asked Jo for money, knowing she had plenty to spare and would freely give it away. I’m still not entirely convinced he truly cared for her, his actions were just too suspicious for me.

When I review an early copy of a novel, I try to avoid reading other reviews in an attempt to keep other opinions from influencing my own. However, once I finished this book, I was curious about what other readers thought. Many people called out the naivety of Jo and her friends. That Jo in particular is only street smart when the story calls for it. While I didn’t notice it during the book, thinking back I certainly see it – one of Jo’s friends (another 17-year-old girl) was adamant about storks delivering babies to married couples! I’m aware that there were certain topics young ladies didn’t discuss back then, but these girls were extremely sheltered. Jo needed to be told about madams and prostitutes, yet she knew the ins and outs of revolvers. These Shallow Graves fluttered back and forth with this throughout the entire novel.

I’m afraid I’ve done too much complaining and nitpicking, but please don’t think I hated this one! In fact I really enjoyed it and raced through its (overly long) 500 pages in a day. The mystery itself was intriguing, though I quickly guessed Who Did It, hoping I was wrong, but it was glaringly obvious. That said, the ride was an enjoyable one. There were a few characterization elements that bothered me, but These Shallow Graves was so richly detailed that I felt as through I really was in New York in the 1890s. Although the cover led me to believe there was a creepier story within its pages, I am thrilled that I can finally say I’ve read a Jennifer Donnelly novel and look forward to reading more!


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