My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”You, on the other hand, wish to know things. And no one can forgive a girl for that.”
Jennifer Donnelly and I have a good literary history — the first novel of hers that I read, Revolution, emotionally rocked my world and is still one of the best historical fiction novels I’ve ever read. While all the other novels of hers I have not enjoyed as much as Revolution, I still enjoyed them, and I do think that Ms. Donnelly’s narrative skills are best exhibited in the world of historical fiction. As you can imagine, I went into These Shallow Graves with a great amount of excitement and expectation, and it did not disappoint in any way.
Josephine “Jo” Montfort is a fantastic protagonist: she’s ambitious and driven, but born unfortunately born into a society that sees women as nothing more than pieces of a business transaction. If you’re born into money, especially “old money” like Jo, you’re expected to marry well, and no amount of mutual friendliness — as she has with her primary “suitor”, Bram — can disguise the fact that, at the end of the day: it’s not personal (or love), it’s business. Despite all this, Jo pushes through, even when met with resistance from her family, who serve as the perfect microcosm for NYC high society. She doesn’t do so with complete blindness; she understands the hypocrisy of her world and simply chooses to try and forge her own path, even while knowing just how difficult that is for her as a woman.
”That was what people did when they wanted to stop a girl from doing something — they shamed her.”
This is one of the best aspects of Donnelly’s work: the highlighting of both the sharp differences and similarities between the historical setting and modern world. Look at the above statement and tell me that it does not still ring true today in the 21st century. Are we better than the 1890’s? Yes. But there are still women fight for equal rights, and books like Graves only make that all the more apparent. This is the kind of book that young girls should read, not only because of the protagonist who dares to not only dream and speak, but act in order to achieve her goal while also trying to do right, but also because it is a novel in which there are men who are supportive of a young woman’s career and interests, even when most of society — men and women — are not.
“Why is it, she wondered now, that boys get to do things and be things and girls only get to watch?”
Eddie Gallagher is the 1890’s version of a #He4She-er, but not in any sort of anachronistic way. He’s still got the habits of someone from the late 19th-century, but he has every reason to understand the strength and grit of young women and how it can equal those of his own sex. Eddie is the handsome journalist who plunges Jo into the mystery of her father’s demise and the truth behind it, and he’s so much more than a love interest — I, personally, loathe when characters are simply created for a story in order to serve only as a love interest. I would rather do without the character entirely, so the fact that Eddie exists so wholly as his own person within Graves is a wonderful thing to see. Jo’s relationship with Eddie works because of their deep understanding of one another: they support each other’s dreams, chide each other for when their ambition gets them into peril, and (best of all) their romantic attraction/love story never takes away from their growth as individuals. Personal growth is not dependent upon romance and that is like the cherry on-top of an already fantastic novel.
”If you’re going to bury the past, bury it deep girl. Shallow graves always give up their dead.”
And the plot truly is fantastic. Sure, I predicted at least 3 of the 4 primary “reveals” or “twists” within the novel, but it didn’t bother me in the slightest, because Donnelly’s novels are always about more than just the plotline. When studying narratology, I was always taught that there are two kinds of “plot” in any given film or novel. There’s the “plot” — with a lower-case “p” — which is the story: it’s what happens in the book. Then there’s the “Plot” — with an upper-case “p” — which is what the book is about. This book isn’t about a compelling mystery that involves unravelling layer upon layer of secrets; it isn’t about forbidden romances, past and present, that smolder under the surface of a historical snapshot of 1890’s NYC; and it isn’t about what is truth and what is lies in the high-society, where people never seem to say what they want/mean. Sure, that’s the story and, trust me, it’s a thrilling story that will keep you digging with Jo all the way to the gripping conclusion.
“We who have means and a voice must use them to help those who have neither. Yet how can we help them if we don’t even know about them? And how can we know about them if no one writes about them? Is it so wrong to want to know things?”
This novel is about the lives of multiple women during the 1890s: from the wealthy young Jo, to the disgraced Eleanor of the past, to the thieving pickpocket, Fay. It’s about these women because, at the end of it, they’re all chasing the same thing: freedom. It seems such a simple wish, an almost silly desire, and yet it is the very thing they all lack, but it different ways. Donnelly takes us through the restricting corsets of high-society to the underbelly of the city where most of the women have been driven to prostitution. Freedom is a luxury, even when it should be a right. And, again, I think this is something that still rings so sadly true, even in today’s world. I don’t mean to get up on a soap-box, but any women/young girl who reads Graves can empathize — if not emotionally more than situationally — the situations and circumstances in which the women of this novel all find themselves. And I hope that most of us, at least, have some kind of Eddie Gallagher in our corner, even if romance is not included.
Jennifer Donnelly’s novels stick with me long after I’ve shut its pages; everything echoes through my head, weaving its way through my life so that I realize just how much I truly am able to connect with the work, both light and dark. These Shallow Graves goes up with Revolution for rocking my world, but in completely different ways than its predecessor. Donnelly is writing some of the strongest YA fiction around and you should all do yourself the favor of reading her historical fiction, because she turns an amazing mirror upon the present by illuminating the past and we are all the better for it.
“As a child, she’d thought all the noise and commotion was the most wild, wonderful game, but as she’d grown older, she understood why everyone rushed around so: they were chasing a story.”