Review: These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

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Jo Montfort is beautiful and rich, and soon—like all the girls in her class—she’ll graduate from finishing school and be married off to a wealthy bachelor. Which is the last thing she wants. Jo secretly dreams of becoming a writer—a newspaper reporter like the trailblazing Nellie Bly.

Wild aspirations aside, Jo’s life seems perfect until tragedy strikes: her father is found dead. Charles Montfort accidentally shot himself while cleaning his revolver. One of New York City’s wealthiest men, he owned a newspaper and was partner in a massive shipping firm, and Jo knows he was far too smart to clean a loaded gun.

The more Jo uncovers about her father’s death, the more her suspicions grow. There are too many secrets. And they all seem to be buried in plain sight. Then she meets Eddie—a young, brash, infuriatingly handsome reporter at her father’s newspaper—and it becomes all too clear how much she stands to lose if she keeps searching for the truth. Only now it might be too late to stop.

The past never stays buried forever. Life is dirtier than Jo Montfort could ever have imagined, and the truth is the dirtiest part of all.

I’ve enjoyed Jennifer Donnelly’s work before having read Revolution and thought it was excellent. I would have to say of the two, I enjoyed These Shallow Graves even more. Donnelly crafts not only a good historical fiction, but is also able to create a mystery that sustains itself throughout the novel and has her heroine manage to be intelligent, yet also misjudge things almost tragically several times. Jo is not only trying to solve a mystery, but also come to term with the fact that her options are very limited when it comes to what is expected of her. Her family repeatedly instills the fact that she is expected to marry wealthy and that her marriage is something to be accepted and tolerated, not necessarily enjoyed. Jo is also working against the idea that proper women are delicate, high strung and only allowed to do certain things within the propriety of society. As she is exposed to other women who have either been born into poverty or have made the choice to defy convention, she realizes that though she might be privileged, her freedom is almost nonexistent. The case of what happens to Eleanor Owens is a vivid reminder of what happens to well born women who step outside of what is expected of them. Jo’s outlook changes throughout the novel as she realizes the world she has been limited to has left her with a very narrow view of how things really work.

The only complaint I would have is that the “misunderstanding” that happens in the romance plot is what I would consider an overused device that could easily be avoided if both parties happened to talk to each other. It’s a trope I’ve seen used constantly in romantic movies, but Donnelly feels like a better writer than that. The rest of the novel is a wonderful historical thriller set in late 1800s New York.

4 out of 5

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