By Kaleigh Steigman
These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly centers around Jo Montfort, a teen member of high-society New York in the late 1800s. While she was away attending finishing school, her father was found dead in his study with a gun in his hand, a death considered an accident by the police. Jo wouldn’t accept that her father, an intellectual man, would make the mistake of cleaning a loaded gun, the reported cause of his death. When she returns home, she begins to investigate the incident. A vibrant mystery ensues and with the help of a lower-class reporter trying to make his big break and a socially awkward coroner, while Jo attempts to find peace within the tragedy of her father’s death.
This novel is many things. It is captivating, thought-provoking, infuriating, and complex. Jo Montfort is such a well written character that I was tempted to rip my hair out at several scenes due to her naivety. She has both a fierce determination and a blinding ignorance of the world outside of fancy gowns and tea parties,which is an interesting combination of characteristics that pushes the plot into unexpected directions. At times, I questioned whether or not I admired or despised her, but my questioning was only an effect of her clear and realistic portrayal as a wealthy 19th century socialite.
My favorite aspect of These Shallow Graves was its historical setting. Donnelly took both the reader and Jo on a journey through a New York in the midst of the second industrial wave; a city with both wrecking poverty and superfluous wealth, which were both intricately described. There were times that the scenery was so meticulously noted that I could easily imagine the exact appearance of a location, yet the action was not halted to make room for description.
Another defining characteristic of this book was how it tackled feminism, and specifically the subordinate position of women in society during the nineteenth century. The main character herself had known for her whole life that she was supposed to marry Bram Aldrich, the son of the other leading family of the New York social order. Throughout the novel, she is pursuing two opposite goals: by day, she mourns her father as a proper lady should, and, with her mother’s instruction, chases Bram’s affections in all ways permitted within the confines of the mourning period. By night, she traipses city streets while hunting for the secrets of her father’s death with unchaperoned company, essentially morphing herself into a walking scandal.
Throughout the novel, Jo is crippled by the social norms her family thrusts upon her, but is also constantly reminded of the realities of her privilege. Her acquaintance, and professional pickpocket, Fay, was sold into child labor as a baby and knows that in the near future her employer will sell her to the owner of a brothel; an institution that Jo herself had not known existed before her adventure began. Jo and Fay are constantly depicted as opposites; having grown up in separate sides of New York, one impoverished, the other holding enormous wealth, but there were parallels drawn between them as well. Both will be sold into a life they don’t want, Jo into marriage, Fay into a prostitution. Neither of them have any way to stop their fates, as they are women in a time where women were considered domestic machines and nothing more.
These Shallow Graves was not a life changing book, and I doubt that I will ever feel inclined to read it again, but it was enjoyable, had only a few plot holes, and while a large section of the ending was predictable, it turned out to be surprising in the end.