Title: CONVERSION by Katherine Howe
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
The Salem Witch Trials is a term recognized by everyone, but what began the whole event is anything but past news to the citizens of Danvers, Massachusetts – originally named Salem Village until 1752. Jumping back and forth from 1706 to 2012, CONVERSION details how a Mystery Illness spreads through the female students at St. Joan’s Academy, consisting of altered speech, twitching and shaking, or even complete hair loss! Howe blurs the line between legend and fact as the town struggles to determine what is ailing their daughters and how they can overcome it.
I was honestly shocked to find that, from the first two chapters, this was a book I would struggle to finish. I am an advocate of finishing every novel I start, even those I don’t enjoy. CONVERSION is told from two separate storylines that switch every few chapters; the character of Ann Putnam narrates the 1706 chapters in first person, while Colleen Rowley dominates the 2012 chapters in third person. This switch in perspective (mainly the constant altering from 1st to 3rd person) immediately threw me off. I read the first chapter – Ann in 1706 – and every time after I switched to Colleen, the words just felt strange. I kept wondering what was wrong, when I realized I was still stuck thinking the text should be in first person. The effect is jarring to the rhythm of the novel, and it eventually became so distracting I had to really work to finish the book.
I could have gotten past that. Perspective is all a matter of, well…perspective. However, I am a copyeditor at heart, grammar and spelling to the bone. This novel commits the one act a traditionally published book has no right of. The entire book struck me as being self-edited. In that, things obviously slip through the cracks. Found on nearly every page are constant unnecessary words, primarily “that.” Think I’m just being a snob? I swear I’m not. I am one of those writers who fiercely oversuses this word in my first drafts. But once published? I don’t understand how that gets through. Here’s an example from page 180:
“–but I was still skeptical. Then my suspicions were confirmed when we had an unfortunate incident of some students falling ill during a school assembly. I’ve gotten permission from those families to share that the second wave of students had no direct connection with the first, including their pediatricians. There simply wasn’t enough evidence to suggest that a vaccine could be responsible for the cluster of symptoms that we were seeing. Unfortunately it was very difficult getting the school to acknowledge that there might be another underlying problem.”
Do you see what I mean? “That” occurs four times in this paragraph alone, and the only one you could make an argument for is the first. The writing style of the entire novel is more of the same, and it became something I noticed every time.
If you could live with the recurring, unnecessary words, I have something no reader could miss. At three different occasions, the author uses the word “gantlet.” I have researched this, and it is in fact a variant spelling of “gauntlet,” so Howe is technically not incorrect. Yet, her characters are from Danvers, Massachusetts; this is a novel set in the United States. Every time I saw “gantlet” instead of “gauntlet” I became confused, wondering if I was really reading the meaning correctly.
Finally, my last comment on the writing – though I could go on, but I am TRYING not to be too bitchy; I apologize if I’m failing – was the lack of execution in this book. I have read Howe’s previous work THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE. Though not my favorite, I found it suspenseful and engaging. CONVERSION, though, is a compilation of repetition and feeble character purpose. Every time Colleen entered the school, she described the gargoyles hovering over the doorway – in specific, minute detail each time. I wanted to smash the gargoyles into stone dust by the third description. One time is plenty to understand this is a convent turned school which verifies certain appearances. Colleen also didn’t seem very logical in her actions, and especially wasn’t relatable, but I will go more into that within the Characters Section.
All in all, I was very surprised that Speak publishing – imprint of Puffin Books – would produce a novel with such careless writing and unlikable characters, plus an ending that gives no answers but appears awkward in its attempts to be clever.
There is a very large group of characters forming the focus of this novel. It consists of a few popular kids, Colleen and her friends who seem to teeter just beneath this popular definition, and one goth/independent outsider. As a group and individuals, each one felt unlikable. Howe’s writing of the teenage speech – keep in mind these are supposed to be seniors at an elite high school trying to get accepted to top ranking schools – is almost comical. The girls come off vapid, self-absorbed, and even bitchy at times. Never did I feel one sounded like a genuine example of sixteen or seventeen year olds today. If you disagree, and you’ve had experience where the majority of people in one place embody this concept, I apologize and feel very sorry for you.
I will only mention the main character Colleen and then her “best friend” (I use that term loosely) Emma. Colleen is competing for valedictorian; she is supposed to be smart and driven. Howe’s character does seem to stress out and need to do things to keep her grades up. But the person Howe initially sets Colleen to be is not played out the more you read. Colleen skips her reading for a class and fails a quiz. When allowed to do extra credit, she actually ends up waiting a decent amount of time before starting, and then never even finishes the report by the final page. there is one scene where Colleen tells her friends she hates high school and is ready for it to be over, listing why she hates it. I felt in tune with her friends when they were shocked by her confession. Yet, this revelation is breezed over and never goes deeper than a one-time flare of drama. She also admits to the reader that her big theory about the cause of the Mystery Illness will make people think she’s insane, yet she runs to four different people – two of which are adults in meaningful positions – and confides all. Colleen felt immature and unrealistic all the way to the last pages.
Emma, Colleen’s oldest and (maybe) best friend, is like a blurry picture. You can see the outlines of things through it, vague and unfocused, but you can never obtain a sharp picture. Emma is distant and shares nothing with her friends or the reader for most of the book. She sits there, a certain expression on her face, while saying nothing. When her big reveal comes, I found myself wondering, “How the hell is this the girl I’ve been reading about?” She is a ghost, and the responsibility Howe places on her towards the end of the novel feels abrupt and underserved.
Yes, anything sporting the words “Salem Witch Trials” will immediately catch my interest. I was very excited for this book and couldn’t wait to start reading. But connecting Howe’s Mystery Illness and the hysteria of past events was difficult at best. This has been labelled a “creepy read,” but I felt no suspense and no excitement as I continued through the plot. Howe tosses theories in every direction, but at the end contradicts the answer she had settled on. She intentionally leaves the end vague, and I understand wanting to do that. Just not for this novel. It simply doesn’t work. I was severely disappointed in her attempts to connect the two events, to give a suspicion of magic trumped by modern science, but then overrule it again with another assertion of possible mystic cause. It felt like going around in circles and coming out empty handed. Even in her Author’s Note, Howe admits trying to show her students a connection to a real life Mystery Illness and the Salem hysteria. None of the students understood. You’d think their confusion would have been a red flag in the writing of this book, but Howe wrote it anyway. Just like her students, I fail to see a completed connection since she juggles back and forth between two.
The only reason I gave this book 1 out of 5 stars is because I liked to seeing a glimpse into the Salem Trials, primarily Ann Putnam’s role and the horror we feel watching a game turn into real life for the town. It was interesting seeing someone try to tie an event like that to our modern world, even if it is my opinion that she failed in the attempt. I also love the cover of this book. Great tie in to some of her 1706 scenes. The final worthy note to make is the romance between Colleen and the character of Spence. It was refreshing in that it didn’t overwhelm the story and evolved at a believable rate. For characters themselves, plot, and writing ability, the book was really a letdown.