First things first, this book combined several of my interests: grimoires, obscure Latin incantations, and a research topic that teases the boundary between the fantastick, the supernatural, and the 17th century. Gothick in its approaches, the book also features a mysterious key, a fallen garden, and the tetragrammaton.
In this, the book continues a trend that surfaced after “Tha da Vinci Code,” “The Rule of Four,” “The Historian”, e. al: a geek superans discovers a mystery, researches, comes to the boundaries of the rational and flirts with lethal danger.
In this “Physick,” the researcheuse is Connie Goodwin, a New England native, daughter to a spiritual healer mother of “free spirit” who has just passed her candidacy to the Ph. D history program at Harvard. As she is called away to tend her familial homestead in the vicinity of Salem, she hopes to begin research on her dissertation.
In another thread, the tale of Deliverance Dane, a Salem woman fated to be of the number murdered in the name of superstition during the witch trials, gives a view into the life of a woman of the age who is also a healer.
Through events unlikely, or preternaturally ordained, Connie discovers the end of Deliverance’s tale and works backwards against the aging of historical record, the tapping foot of her advisor, and sans the interest of her healer mother.
The strongest point, in my opinion is the view Howe gives us of a pre-scientific world. Many moderns are quick to judge those judging in the Salem prosecution, but fail to grasp that their world lacked a mode of parceling the unknown into manageable, nameable blocks of unknown. Working this into a popular novel is an achievement. Where the focus of the story is here, I feel it is at its strongest and deepest.
The characters operate within a fairly small world and thus the plot’s conclusion, thus, is telegraphed early, but it’s a nice enough yarn, so I was not overly irked. Nevertheless, I didn’t feel like I really got to know any of the characters with much depth (beyond the eponymous Mrs. Dane) and somehow that left me a bit unsatisfied.
This strikes me as a perfect “travelin'” book. If you’re catching the SFO to JFK this would be the perfect book – or better yet if your destination were Logan and Boston Towne.