Reviewed by Christy H.
Jo Montfort is an extremely privileged young lady in the 1890s. Her life is made up of polite conversation, proper tea etiquette, and staying within the strict confines of what is expected of her – or trying to. It isn’t becoming for a young lady to want to write, like the famous journalist Nellie Bly no less. But that’s exactly what Jo wants to do. She dreams of becoming a hard hitting investigative journalist who can uncover society’s wrongdoings. She doesn’t really expect that to happen though. She fears she will be betrothed soon as she is nearing the ripe old age of 18. Unfortunately, her shot at a groundbreaking story comes when her wealthy shipping magnate father is found dead under suspicious circumstances. With the help of an up and coming reporter named Eddie, Jo sets out to discover the truth. In doing so she reveals a dangerous conspiracy she never could’ve imagined.
Jennifer Donnelly has written numerous historical fiction novels for adults and young adults. She is one of my favorite authors, and I was thrilled to see her return to this genre. However, this homecoming isn’t perfect. These Shallow Graves’s subject matter is certainly geared toward an older young adult audience. But it’s written as if the reader is in their very early teens. Anyone above that age will a lot of times be one step ahead of Jo. Donnelly’s most recent books, the Waterfire Saga, were aimed at middle school readers so perhaps she wasn’t able to shake off that tone. Also, in this novel, she has the unfortunate habit of ending chapters on a cliffhanger only to jump slightly ahead in time in the next chapter, whether it’s a few moments or a few weeks, and go back and explain what happened in between. I don’t remember her doing that in her older novels, and I’m honestly not sure what the point is. It’d be a much smoother transition to let the actions play out naturally. Thankfully, it didn’t happen every time but enough to grow tiresome.
Although These Shallow Graves is probably Donnelly’s weakest novel it is by no means bad. It’s a quick and fun read but not completely lacking in depth. It explores themes like misogyny, classism, and female friendships that I think are interesting and important – especially for teen readers. I definitely missed Donnelly’s plucky heroines, and I look forward to reading her future offerings. Hopefully, she has more adult fiction coming our way.