It’s always fascinating to try to parse what makes a book popular. Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a good read, but so many excellent books get published and sell poorly that a first-novel success like this attracts my attention. The publisher, Hyperion, is supporting her with an elaborate website and she’s traveling for the book, but it must have been sold hard to bookstores, too.
Part of the appeal must be the magic. Howe takes on the Salem witch trials and, as a PhD. candidate in American studies, her research is thorough. Better, though, she’s got a grasp on what it is people really want to know in an historical novel, i.e. what it was like to be there. She’s excellent with the sounds, smells, the cold, the scractchy fabrics and the circumscribed world of 1692 Salem.
And then the magic extends to the present day — our heroine Connie Goodwin is a Harvard PhD. student in history, specializing in Colonial America, and her research leads her to Deliverance Dane, who was hung as a witch. Howe has invented a book of receipts that once belonged to Dane, which becomes the McGuffin in the story. The near-contemporary (1991) stuff is weaker material, as believably tense academics start behaving oddly and ultimately casting spells. Shades of Harry Potter, I’m sorry to say. And though the love-interest is appealing — he makes his first entrance sliding down a rope, ta da! — he is also quite bland. There’s something of a disconnect between the more ambitious 17th-century segments, which explore the meaning of witchcraft to its practitioners as well as to the community, and the 20th century story which is pretty plot-driven.
I did toy with casting the movie. No, I don’t know that there’s going to be one, but if you had Anne Hathaway as Connie… James Franco as Sam… Austin Pendleton as Connie’s academic advisor… and surely there’s a raft of actresses appropriate for the witch parts… problem with this is it’s sort of The Crucible crossed with, oh, gosh, A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Probably better just to leave it as an entertaining summer novel.