Book Review: Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

Title: Anatomy: A Love Story
Author: Dana Schwartz
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: January 18, 2022
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction / Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A gothic tale full of mystery and romance about a willful female surgeon, a resurrection man who sells bodies for a living, and the buried secrets they must uncover together.

Edinburgh, 1817.

Hazel Sinnett is a lady who wants to be a surgeon more than she wants to marry.

Jack Currer is a resurrection man who’s just trying to survive in a city where it’s too easy to die.

When the two of them have a chance encounter outside the Edinburgh Anatomist’s Society, Hazel thinks nothing of it at first. But after she gets kicked out of renowned surgeon Dr. Beecham’s lectures for being the wrong gender, she realizes that her new acquaintance might be more helpful than she first thought. Because Hazel has made a deal with Dr. Beecham: if she can pass the medical examination on her own, the university will allow her to enroll. Without official lessons, though, Hazel will need more than just her books – she’ll need bodies to study, corpses to dissect.

Lucky that she’s made the acquaintance of someone who digs them up for a living, then.

But Jack has his own problems: strange men have been seen skulking around cemeteries, his friends are disappearing off the streets. Hazel and Jack work together to uncover the secrets buried not just in unmarked graves, but in the very heart of Edinburgh society.

I have to be honest — I was 100% drawn to this book because of the cover! I mean… gorgeous, right? Unfortunately, my impression based on the cover led me to expect something intense, dramatic, perhaps tragic… and while there’s a lot that works about this book, the initial impressions don’t really pan out.

Anatomy takes place in Edinburgh in 1817, presenting a view of the state of medicine and society at that time. The wealthy and titled live comfortable, oblivious lives, while the poor suffer and starve, and sickness spreads through the city without much in the way of effective medicine to stop it.

In this world, physicians may be respected, but surgeons certainly are not. Their work is considered only steps above butchery. To learn the art and science of surgery, anatomists must rely on “resurrection men”, grave robbers who dig up fresh corpses to earn a living.

Jack Currer is one such resurrectionist, a teenaged boy who supports himself through this gruesome and dangerous work, while dreaming of a better life. 17-year-old Hazel Sinnett is a young lady, niece of a viscount, comfortably settled in her family’s gorgeous home, pampered, and expected to marry her cousin, to whom she’s been unofficially engaged since childhood.

But Hazel nurtures a secret dream of becoming a physician, and she’s determined to pursue it, no matter the obstacles. Disguised in her late brother’s clothing, she begins attending classes at the Royal Edinburgh Anatomists’ Society in preparation for the physicians exam, but is soon discovered and tossed out.

Undeterred, she decides to continue studying on her own. With the rest of her family conveniently away for several months, she arranges for Jack to bring her bodies to study, and soon opens the doors of her family home to any poor people who need medical attention. While her practice flourishes, she gains skills and knowledge, and is soon a doctor in all but certification.

But something sinister is happening in Edinburgh. Other resurrectionists of Jack’s acquaintance have gone missing, and the business of digging up graves becomes more dangerous by the day. Amidst the danger, Hazel begins joining Jack on his work in the graveyards. As they spend time together, they develop trust and friendship, and then stronger emotions, although their difference in social station would seem to be insurmountable.

I was excited to read Anatomy, as the early history of modern medicine is truly fascinating. This is not the first book I’ve read set in this time and place, with a similar focus on the work of anatomists. However, while I expected that the plot would be mostly about the challenges of a young woman pursuing a career in science — something off-limits to her because of her gender and her social status — that’s not really what the book delivers.

Instead, the book takes a turn toward more of a thriller, with disappearances and sinister deaths, and there’s a supernatural/fantasy element that I wasn’t expecting — and honestly, that threatened to ruin the story for me. I loved reading about Hazel’s burning desire for an education and to do good in the world, but the climax and resolution negate the sense of historical reality established earlier in the book.

Also, this may be my own fault, but I assumed this was adult fiction. Only as I got further along did it occur to me that this might actually be YA — and yes, it’s listed as such on NetGalley, so I suppose I just didn’t notice that ahead of time. Maybe this is why the plot ended up feeling a little trite and simplistic to me. I wanted rich historical fiction; instead, I got a watered-down historical setting that focuses on romance and a fantastical element that’s just weird.

As for the romance — well, Hazel and Jack are both very likable characters, and I appreciated that they could develop feelings for each other, but their first kiss is anything but romantic:

Hazel pressed her shoulders up against Jack, partly to avoid the chill leaching from the moist earth through her jacket, but partly because his warmth — the solidity of his presence — made her less dizzy with fear. It anchored her. They were there, together. Whatever — whoever — was out there, neither of them would have to face it alone.

Wondering where this is taking place?

She had kissed Jack Currer in a grave, and he kissed her back, and even with everything else they had faced, that moment was the hardest Hazel’s heart had beaten the entire night.

I think if I’d realize this was a YA book, I might have had more tolerance for it as I was reading it. As it was, I felt a little let down by the realization that the intense, presumably adult drama I’d been expected had turned out to be a teen-aged love story with an otherworldly twist.

I would read more about anatomists in the early 1800s or historical fiction about Scotland in that time period or about women trying to study medicine at a time when they weren’t permitted to do so — in a heartbeat! Sadly, this book didn’t deliver what I’d hoped for.

Anatomy has a great setting and interesting premise, but the overall structure and content of the story was a letdown for me. It’s not a bad read at all, but this is a prime example of expectations getting in the way of enjoyment. Perhaps if I’d more accurately anticipated the tone and content, I might have appreciated it more.

I’m going to be looking forward to hearing other people’s thoughts on this book. It did keep me turning the pages, even though I found many aspects borderline ridiculous. Your mileage may vary.

Book Review: The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley

Title: The Vanished Days
Author: Susanna Kearsley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: October 5, 2021
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; hardcover purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In the autumn of 1707, old enemies from the Highlands to the Borders are finding common ground as they join to protest the new Union with England. At the same time, the French are preparing to launch an invasion to bring the young exiled Jacobite king back to Scotland to reclaim his throne, and in Edinburgh the streets are filled with discontent and danger.

Queen Anne’s commissioners, seeking to calm the situation, have begun paying out money sent up from London to settle the losses and wages owed to those Scots who took part in the disastrous Darien expedition eight years earlier–an ill-fated venture that left Scotland all but bankrupt.

When the young widow of a Darien sailor comes forward to collect her husband’s wages, her claim is challenged. One of the men assigned to investigate has only days to decide if she’s honest, or if his own feelings are blinding him to the truth.

The Vanished Days is a prequel and companion novel to The Winter Sea, with action that overlaps some of the action in that book. The Vanished Days goes back in time to the 1680s and introduces the reader to the Moray and Graeme families.

I’ve loved every one of Susanna’s books! She has bedrock research and a butterfly’s delicate touch with characters–sure recipe for historical fiction that sucks you in and won’t let go!–DIANA GABALDON, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Outlander

From international bestselling author Susanna Kearsley comes a historical tale of intrigue and revolution in Scotland, where the exile of King James brought plots, machinations, suspicion and untold bravery to light. An investigation of a young widow’s secrets by a man who’s far from objective, leads to a multi-layered tale of adventure, endurance, romance…and the courage to hope.

Susanna Kearsley is a go-to author for me, but sadly The Vanished Days did not quite live up to my expectations.

The Vanished Days loosely connects to the wonderful book The Winter Sea — the timelines of the two books overlap, and some key players from The Winter Sea either appear in The Vanished Days or get a substantial mention. There’s even a quick appearance by the descendant of characters from another of the author’s books, Mariana (which I also loved).

The Vanished Days is narrated by Adam Williamson, a young sergeant temporarily staying at the home of his former captain. The action is centered in Edinburgh in 1707, when Adam is asked to stand in for his friend in carrying out an official inquiry into a woman claiming to be the widow of a man lost during the ill-fated Scottish colonization attempt at Darien (in Central America).

The woman’s name is Lily, and she claims to have been secretly married to a man named Jamie Graeme, descendent of a prestigious, well-known family with suspected Jacobite ties. Lily produces a marriage certificate, but the witnesses to the document are deceased and there are no friends or family members who would have known about the marriage. As Adam begins to investigate, we learn more about Lily’s history through scenes going back to the 1680s, as Lily shares the sad story of her childhood and beyond.

Woven throughout the story as well are political machinations and highly dangerous scheming related to the Jacobite cause, which all contribute to Lily’s current situation — the unraveling of which proves to be much more complicated and potentially dangerous than seemed likely when the investigation first began.

While there are many episodes and elements that I enjoyed about the story, an overall sense of disconnect and overabundance of details made this a confusing read. I had a hard time keeping the historical elements straight, not to mention the lengthy and intricate descriptions of Edinburgh’s neighborhoods and streets and landmarks.

Clearly, the author has done a tremendous amount of research for this book, and her mastery of the time and place is clear. Unfortunately, the piling on of detail doesn’t necessarily make for engaging reading. I never felt that I had a terrific grasp of the characters’ inner lives, and this became especially problematic toward the end of the book, when certain revelations that should have had bigger impacts just left me shrugging. If I’d been more invested or felt like I had a better sense of these characters’ motivations and connections, I suspect I might have been blown away.

Still, there are set-pieces and elements of the story that are more successful than others. A big section of Lily’s younger years has a Dickensian feel to it, as she falls in with a found family composed of a petty criminal and the orphans he adopts to further his criminal pursuits. I liked a lot about this, but still struggled to feel that the overall book represented a cohesive whole.

I do love Susanna Kearsley’s books — I wonder if part of my disconnect with this one has to do with the timeline of the setting. In pretty much every other book of hers that I’ve read, there’s been a dual timeline, with a contemporary story interwoven with a historical one. In The Vanished Days, there are once again two timelines, but both are historical and within a relatively short span from one another. Perhaps because of this, I didn’t feel as strong a connection to the material, maybe because I lacked a more accessible entry point.

I don’t regret reading The Vanished Days by any means — but by comparison, I’ve re-read many of the author’s earlier books, and I can’t see myself returning to this one.