These Shallow Graves: A Book Review


These Shallow GravesTitle: These Shallow Graves
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Published: October 27th, 2015 by Random House Delacorte
Pages: 496
Genre: Young Adult / Historical Fiction / Mystery
Source: Library / Hardcover
Series: Not as of right now, but fingers crossed for more!

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. {Goodreads}

When I have a free moment, I scramble to gather words for an upcoming post, writing down snippets of text on stray pieces of lined paper, an open Word document, or sticky notes I keep stashed in my planner. It’s no wonder, then, that I find a blank draft so intimidating; how does one start a review from the ground up? It’s at times like this that I fear I have nothing left to say in my reviews that isn’t a repetition of what has already been written.

I think it’s no coincidence that these incidents of writer’s block coincide with my reading slumps. There’s nothing like a lack of outstanding, made-for-Bella books to rid of my motivation to review. In contrast, when I stumble upon a novel that is so good – one that has me glued to its pages until I reach the final chapter – I want to do nothing but share my thoughts with others. Jennifer Donnelly’s newest book, These Shallow Graves, falls in the latter category, but after the success of her previous historical fiction novels, I believe that was only to be expected of this murder mystery. With equal doses of romance and suspense, it ended my 2015 reads on an excellent note.

As with her other books, one set during the French Revolution, the other in the early 1900s, Donnelly focuses her attention here on an oft-overlooked era in YA fiction: The Gilded Age, a period where social classes were largely divided, manufacturing was booming, and politicians and investors alike were dishonest. It’s not America’s best moment in history, but it’s a wise choice for a mystery; the widespread corruption and with that, the societal intricacies, are like a playing ground for authors in developing suspects, motives, and evidence. Donnelly takes full advantage of what the period offers her, crafting an immersive narrative that combines the personal struggles of her characters with the social and political issues at large. In addition, Donnelly has a keen skill for descriptive writing, not only in evoking the readers’ five senses, but also in inserting historically accurate information where you’d least expect it – she’s clearly no stranger to the genre.

Just as the murder case and setting are multi-layered, the characters show themselves to be more than meets the eye. Jo is caught between the expectations of the aristocratic class and her desire to reach the world. Eddie, the reporter who she befriends and, hey, maybe kisses later on, is torn between the shame over his past and his ambition for his future. Fay, an unlikely ally Jo makes in the course of sleuthing, has to choose between accepting her fate and running away. Not one character lacks dimension, but Donnelly is also careful to develop their stories to a point of realism and plausibility, rather to one for the sake of convenience. Furthermore, the underlying theme of gender equality serves not just Jo well – she who inspires to be the next Nellie Bly – but the other characters too, who, all on their own terms, come to realize the shackles they’ve placed on others and themselves on the basis of gender.

That’s not to say These Shallow Graves is perfect. I like a long novel as much as the next person, as they offer a unique chance to grow with the characters and savor the story, but, here, I felt the mystery was padded with unnecessary red herrings. Similarly, Jo and Eddie had far too many instances of good luck throughout their detective work for me to overlook them. And though I came to love Jo and Eddie’s relationship {I even named them my fictional couple of the year}, the quick shift from dislike to near passion for one another was hard to believe. However, do note: what calls for improvements is outdone by what was written well.

I’m usually weary of epilogues, but the last chapter was welcome here. Following the trial, Jo finds peace, no longer digging for the “ultimate truth,” but also not content with accepting the status quo. The final scene Donnelly provides is a powerful one, wrapping up the chilling mystery, the future of Jo and Eddie, and the change in society in one image. These Shallow Graves reaffirmed my love for all work written by one Ms. Jennifer Donnelly. I hope it does the same for you.

Have a terrific Thursday! :)

Psst. Looking for more from this author? I’m with you – I want to re-read her other books! Find my reviews for Revolution and A Northern Light.


9 thoughts on “These Shallow Graves: A Book Review

  1. First off, I relate to the writer’s block/reviewing tendencies you described in your first two paragraphs. I almost always make sure to start my review – even if it’s just a few sentences of the opening paragraph – before I finish a book, so I’m not left staring at a blank document after turning the final page. As for the rest of your review, I’m so glad you enjoyed These Shallow Graves so much! Based on your description of the time period, it sounds like Donnelly’s latest setting is just as excellent as I’ve come to expect from her. And I’m so, so excited to see for myself how the underlying theme of gender equality impacts each character. The reservations you listed do sound annoying, but I’m sure you’re completely right that the positives outweigh the negatives. Hopefully I’ll love this one as much as I’ve loved the author’s past works!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, interesting, I might steal that method from you! And, yes, it most definitely lives up to Donnelly’s past works – it’s worth the read. Thank you, as always, for stopping by :)


  2. Great review! I can totally relate to the writer’s block / reader’s slump. I also have a YouTube channel and making videos also falls into that category for me. It seems when I am unmotivated it hits me hard. This book definitely sounds like something I will enjoy. Thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I can imagine how tough the lack of motivation can be when it comes to videos if it’s anything like writer’s block – no fun. If you get a chance to read this one, I hope you enjoy it; I loved it. Thanks for commenting! :)


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