“These Shallow Graves” by Jennifer Donnelly
4 out of 5 stars.
“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.”
It has been a really long time since I have deliberately picked up a mystery novel. Most good stories all have an element of mystery or surprise to them, because that’s what keeps us on our toes as readers, but this time I chose to read a novel solely based on the fact that I wanted to see a crime or mystery solved. Between its promising plot and Victorian era setting (historical fiction is a weakness of mine), “These Shallow Graves” appeared like it would be a very enjoyable read; its cover did not hurt in the appeal of reading it, either. I was beyond pleased when I began reading this book and found it to be more than just a pretty cover and a promising summary, and it ended up being a very interesting and well-written story.
Jennifer Donnelly started her book off in the fast lane with Josephine receiving the news that her father had died, and I liked that “These Shallow Graves,” which was a lengthier novel, did not take a hundred or so pages to get to the moment that sent the heroine on her quest. I also thought that Jennifer Donnelly made a good choice in using a style of writing that felt more true to the time period because it helped to develop and round out the late 19th century setting in which Jo lived. My only problem with the setting of “These Shallow Graves” was that I had read Megan Shepherd’s “The Madman’s Daughter” trilogy before it.
“The Shallow Graves” was a very well-written and well thought out novel, but I had a hard time not flashing back to Megan’s books due to the Victorian era setting and seeing some similarities between the subject matter in the two authors’ books. Both Megan and Jennifer wrote heroines dealing with the social and economical constraints that were put on women during that time period, they were both trying to uncover secrets that led to costly truths, and they both lived in large cities with dark underbellies. Josephine and Juliet read differently as heroines, but there were definitely quite a few parallels that could be drawn between their two stories, and I think my problem with “The Shallow Graves” was that it lacked the immersive quality that the “The Madman’s Daughter” trilogy possessed. The balls, clothing, mystery, and romance were all written so vividly by Megan Shepherd, and she completely drew me into her story. But with “These Shallow Graves,” it felt like it lacked a certain haunting quality and descriptiveness to its writing style, despite the heavier themes in it, and I was not as drawn into this novel’s story as I had hope I would be. This novel was still very well-written, but I felt a little withdrawn at times when I had hoped to be passionate about the story and its characters.
Josephine, or Jo, was a good female character. I did not connect with Jo as much as I had hoped I would, but I did admire and appreciate the fact that a high society girl cared about the people outside of her little blue blood circle, and that she wanted to write to bring awareness to the issues plaguing her city. There were times, however, when I made a few eye rolls and slapped my forehead because of something Jo had done. During those moments, I wanted to say, “Use your head, honey,” but after considering the time period and that street smarts were little known to ladies, let alone those belonging to the upper classes, I allowed those foolish moments slide in my head while reading “These Shallow Graves.” Jo was a sweet character and she experienced a lot of growth as an individual over the course of this book, which was nice. One of the things that did bother me a little bit about this character, though, was how easily and quickly she fell for Edward Gallagher. I didn’t buy it, but we’ll get to that part of this review in a little bit.
Eddie Gallagher was a pretty interesting character, and I liked the fact that he was a journalist. I did feel like I had a hard time getting to know Eddie as a character, and for the first half of “These Shallow Graves,” he felt a little vague and shapeless; Jennifer Donnelly described his physical traits well (brown hair, blue eyes, etc.), but I did not feel that he had a definitive shape or feeling to him. It was hard at first to see what made Eddie, well, Eddie, and as the story progressed, I kind of just envisioned another character who I knew quite well and was a journalist like Eddie. Brodi and Brock Thoene have written tons of historical novels, and my favorite series that they wrote had an amazing character named John Murphy in it. I think having Murphy in my head while reading this book helped me to see a better outline of who Eddie was by the middle of “These Shallow Graves,” and then by the second half of it, I felt like Jennifer had developed him a little bit better. By the second half, I could see that Eddie had a good heart despite his rough past, and even though I did not like their romance, I appreciated how much he cared for Jo and wanted her to be safe.
In all honesty, I wish that there hadn’t been a romance between Eddie and Jo, that the two of them could have just been two kindred spirits who forged a friendship because of what they went through together. Both Eddie and Jo wanted to write about the truth, to make a difference in the world, and I would have loved it if the society girl and the up-and-coming journalist had become just good friends. Sadly, I did not get what I wanted in that department.
I think that Jennifer Donnelly had Eddie and Jo “fall in love” and start their romance too soon in this book. The bulk of “These Shallow Graves” took place over the course of about three months, the most time passing during the latter half of it. Eddie and Jo had barely started their investigation, and had yet to discover anything vital to uncovering the details of her father’s death, when they started their romance around page 140. “These Shallow Graves” was a nearly 500 paged book, so to me that seemed a little too early to get all doe-eyed when neither of them had spent much time together. There was no tension, suspense, or intrigue to their romance because they fell for each other so soon, and I was a bit frustrated by that since they did not know anything about the other to fall in love with; to truly love someone, you have to know them, who they are, and love them flaws and all. I guess I did not buy into the romance because of that, and I had a hard time rooting for their relationship since I did not really know who they were at that point in this book.
Despite the slightly lackluster romance, I did end up liking “These Shallow Graves.” Jennifer Donnelly did a great job of keeping me reading, even when little was going on in Jo’s monotonous blue blood world, and although it was weightier novel, “These Shallow Graves” was a fast read. I did find while reading that I was able to predict most of its plot pretty early on, but instead of being bored because I knew who was bad or what would happen, I appreciated Jennifer Donnelly’s pacing and the times she chose to reveal small details of the mystery to keep her story moving.
Overall, I enjoyed reading “These Shallow Graves” by Jennifer Donnelly, and I thought it was a well-written novel that was wrapped up quite nicely by its end. As much as I enjoyed reading “These Shallow Graves,” I would definitely recommend to anyone who wants to read this book to stick it through to the second half because that was when the characters felt a little more grounded and the plot started to develop and pick up steam. The thing that really made me like this book actually turned out to be the ending itself: slightly bittersweet but quite hopeful. The ending felt final, yet full of possibilities, and I really liked that. “These Shallow Graves” was more of a 3 ½ star book for me, but between its second half and the ending, I am going to round it up to a 4 star book.