Two books that didn’t work for me
Before the 48 Hour Book Challenge starts on Friday (have you signed up yet?), I want to clear out all my unfinished book reviews currently still in draft status. Here’s the first set.
Contagion by Joanne Dahme
I said in my Kirkus blog review of Prisoners in the Palace that I love female-focused historical novels with social commentary, and when you add disease to the mix, I am even more inclined to read such a book. So, yes, I was excited to read Contagion. Unfortunately, I thought Contagion was on the boring side of mediocre.
Rose was thirteen when her parents arranged her marriage to Patrick Dugan. As both were the children of Irish immigrants who built successful businesses, it was considered a fitting match. Patrick was wealthy and attractive, and Rose was happy. Lately, though, Patrick has been displaying a side of himself that disturbs Rose.
Patrick has his eye on building a water filtration system for Philadelphia. He’s practically assured of winning the contract, thanks to kickbacks with local politicians, once the system is approved. A political battle is brewing between people opposed to a water filtration system and those in favor of it; Rose is a member of a committee fighting against a water filtration system. The committee’s goals are in line with those of a young engineer, Sean.
After Rose’s best friend is murdered and Rose begins to suspect that she was the real target of the attack. And when people begin to die of typhoid, Sean is first puzzled, then suspicious. Are the two mysteries related? As Rose and Sean begin working together, their feelings toward each other grow.
On the sentence level, Dahme’s writing is competent enough. While I often thought she spent too much time describing scenes and locales instead of building atmosphere, some of the descriptions were lovely. However, they went on for too long without contributing enough to the story. Partly because of this, it took a while for the story to get going; Dahme spent so much time setting the stage that I was bored by the time I finally got to the stage.
Then, once I got there, the story had no momentum. The narrative alternates between Rose and Sean, and because both narrators spend so much time contemplating whether or not anything nefarious is going on, it became difficult for me, as a reader, to feel any sense urgency or tension regarding either mystery element (meaning the murder of Rose’s friend and the cause of the typhoid outbreak). Further, because the character development of basically every character was shallow—no depth and very little nuance—I didn’t connect enough to any of them to care about their fate. The villain turned into more and more of a caricature as the story went on, making the story lose even more tension. Ultimately while Rose and Sean were depicted as decent, admirable people, I did not find them compelling enough to propel and carry the story, considering my problems with the pacing and my lack of interest in the romance.
Book source: accepted review copy from publisher.
Rosebush by Michele Jaffe
Rosebush is one of those books I enjoyed a lot more while reading than after finishing it. Not that I thought it was flawless as I read it—the clothing descriptions were excessive, not to mention how *everyone’s* wealth was emphasized—but I was sucked in by the mystery.
Jane wakes up in the hospital with a variety of injuries and no memory of how it happened. Was it an accident? Attempted suicide? As her friends visit her in the hospital, Jane tries to piece together the events of the night before, but her friends all seem to be hiding things from her, and Jane soon becomes convinced that someone tried to kill her.
So, yeah, it was the mystery that kept me reading, the way Jaffe threw plausible suspicion on practically everyone. But the culprit, oh, the culprit’s identity.
In mysteries, I think there’s a difference between plausible suspicion and plausible motivation, and the standards for the former are a lot lower than the latter. Especially in a book like this where the reader knows that the culprit is part of the protagonist’s circle of acquaintances. In this case, there were plausible reasons for Jane to suspect plenty of people. But when the culprit’s identity was revealed and motivation explained, I wasn’t convinced that their motivation was the strongest of any of the characters, or even strong enough to go to such lengths. The more I thought about it, the more doubtful I found the motivation. And, well, when the mystery element is the main draw of a novel, no matter how much you enjoy the majority of the book, if the mystery lets you down for any reason, it detracts from your overall enjoyment of the book.
Because despite Jane not being as endearing a protagonist as Jasmine Callihan, I did enjoy much of Rosebush. Just not enough to overcome any doubts about the culprit’s motivation.
Book source: public library.