REVIEW: Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz
I’ve read two previous books by Dana Schwartz, Choose Your Own Disaster and The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon. Both were non-fiction(ish?) – the first a memoir with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” conceit and the second a satirical look at famous authors from the persona of Schwartz’ @GuyInYourMFA twitter account. I also enjoy her podcast Noble Blood, though I am waaay behind on it (it’s a mystery to me how people manage to make time in their lives for podcasts).
Anyway, when I heard she had a young adult book coming out and read the blurb, I was excited. Even moreso when I saw the beautiful cover. Suffice to say, I was jazzed to read this.
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, Beecham will allow her to continue her medical career. Without official lessons, though, Hazel will need more than just her books – she’ll need corpses to study.
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, and the dreaded Roman Fever, which wiped out thousands a few years ago, is back with a vengeance. Nobody important cares – until Hazel.
Now, Hazel and Jack must work together to uncover the secrets buried not just in unmarked graves, but in the very heart of Edinburgh society.
So, Hazel is a lady; I think she’s about 19. She’s engaged-to-be-engaged to marry a cousin, who is appropriately boorish (but could probably be worse as far as boorish cousins/fiances go; I’ve read so many). When we first meet Hazel she is attempting to reanimate a dead frog. She has always been interested in medical matters and has longed to have the opportunity to study to be a doctor, but her gender and her class present considerable barriers.
Hazel lives with her mother and younger brother in a castle near Edinburgh; her father is off guarding Napoleon on St. Helena for the Royal Navy. Her beloved older brother died from the same “Roman Fever” that Hazel recovered from, and ever since her mother has been super-protective of Hazel’s younger brother and neglectful of Hazel (presumably her gender makes her not worth worrying about).
A note on the “Roman Fever”: the internet mostly points me to the Edith Wharton story of the same name, and other references suggest it’s another name for either malaria or pneumonia. In the course of this story, it seems like perhaps a fictitious ailment somewhat similar to bubonic plague.
When we first meet Jack, he’s robbing a grave. It’s distasteful work (more on that in a bit), and I had to give some thought to the moral implications. As presented in the story, the graverobbers strip the bodies because if they take anything *other* than the body they can be charged with theft, which is a more serious charge than just graverobbing. Families of the recently deceased do take measures to prevent the desecration of their loved ones’ remains (putting a concrete slab over the coffin was one popular option).
I guess I kind of disapprove of graverobbing on the grounds that you’re potentially giving pain to the recently bereaved. While I find it very yucky (again, more on that), I don’t think it really matters to the person who is dead. And: 1) doctors and students did need bodies to learn from that were well nigh impossible to get at that time and 2) graverobbers needed money to survive.
Whereas I had previously, if ever gave it any thought, felt that graverobbers of past centuries were Not Good People, I am willing to aver that the truth is more complicated. For the purposes of the story, Jack is really quite decent and not even all that hardened given the circumstances of his life. He is also about 19.
So, the story: as blurbed, Hazel and Jack meet and then meet again, and she starts using him to provide bodies. She has first started to attend Dr. Beecham’s lectures disguised as a male, but is found out fairly quickly. Hazel and Jack develop a friendship and when his gravedigging partner mysteriously disappears (dun-dun-dun!), Hazel even accompanies Jack on his nocturnal missions.
All this stretches credulity quite a bit – not that Hazel is intent on becoming a doctor, because history serves up plenty of examples of women ahead of their time. But it seems unlikely that she’d be left to her own devices to such a degree as she is (her mother, spooked by the return of the fever to Edinburgh, whisks Hazel’s brother to Bath, leaving Hazel alone). Even though she lives in a castle, the only staff appear to be Hazel’s maid and one footman, both of whom abet Hazel when she starts bringing stiffs into the castle’s dungeon (!) and cutting them up.
Ultimately, my bigger issue with this book was really my own fault – I didn’t really think about how squeamish I am. I find the subject matter interesting but I have probably too faint a heart for the nitty gritty – sights and smells are described in a fair amount of detail. I ended up feeling somewhat alienated from Hazel as a character because I didn’t *understand* how she wasn’t grossed out by it all (I judged Jack less harshly because it wasn’t like he got into dealing with dead bodies because he wanted to).
I mean it when I say – this was my issue. I fully acknowledge that the world needs people willing to do all sorts of things that I find gross. But I do wish I’d understood Hazel better – maybe I needed more background on how and why she became so fascinated with human anatomy. I didn’t dislike Hazel, but I found Jack both more likable and relatable.
My last complaint is that there are unexpected fantastical elements introduced late in the story that I really wasn’t expecting and didn’t feel were necessary to the story. I think there may be a sequel, and these elements do intrigue me in regards to what direction the story will take. But I wish the turn into fantasy/sci-fi (sort of? I don’t really know what to call it) had been better telegraphed. In retrospect, there were a couple of things that didn’t really make sense for a story grounded in reality, but these were too subtle for me.
This is one of those books/reviews where I have more to say about the things I didn’t like than the things I did, making it sound like I *really* didn’t like the book, which isn’t quite the case. Complaints aside, this was well written and the setting and characters interested me. I enjoyed Anatomy: A Love Story enough to give it a B grade, and I will very likely pick up the sequel; I think knowing about some of the things that bothered me in this book will make me less likely to be bothered in the next one.
I got almost all the way through this book before bailing out. The disintegrating corpse dissections were hard to read but it was the rampant historical anachronisms and continuity issues that made it a hot mess for me. Was this supposed to be set in an alternate universe and I missed that info?
Thanks for your review, Jennie. I’m not into gore, so I will be passing on this. I do admire the cover! I wonder what the cover of the follow on book will look like.
@Jayne: I think there were some (too) subtle signs that the world wasn’t exactly like ours. The anachronisms seemed weird – Schwartz being the driving force behind Noble Blood, which requires a lot of historical research for most episodes makes me think that they were deliberate. I remember the early-ish tooth scene and kind of just gliding over that with a, “huh, that’s weird.”
@Kareni: It’s such a gorgeous and clever cover! I hope the sequel matches it somehow.