In today’s post we look at a book review of A Study in Charlotte, Brittany Cavallaro’s promising debut YA mystery and the first in a trilogy.
Recently I updated some things on Goodreads—finished a book, marked it Read, checked out my “2016” shelf to see how many books were on it—and learned something surprising about myself. I discovered that my average rating had dropped to 3.58. So out of 227 books I’ve marked as “Read” since October 2010, four have no star rating because they did not earn even one star, and the remaining 223 were rated a 3.58 on average.
Damn. When did I becomes so critical?
Probably 2014, the year my read-per-year number jumped to 53 books, up from 22 in 2013 and 15 in 2012. My relationship to reading has changed as the years have passed. When I graduated college in 2011, I was grateful to read just about any book. Similarly, I went through a few years of holding jobs that were less than intellectually stimulating, so I erred on the side of anything I read and remotely liked as a five star or four star read due to pure escapism. But since I started reviewing and writing about books professionally, I’ve been a much tougher critic. 2013’s 5 stars is most likely a 4 or high 3 today. 2012’s 3 stars is probably a 2 in 2016. This is all fodder for a future post.
The problem of the 5 star – 3 star book
So where do we fit Brittany Cavallaro’s A Study in Charlotte? How does one write a book review of “A Study in Charlotte”?A gloriously uneven book that on the whole was an utter delight to read and yet was still somewhat messy and all over the place lacking some real editing?
If I was going on how I feel, the book would be a solid 4 stars. But the writing so much suffered from editing woes and a meandering plot that I couldn’t give it a 4. And yet I loved it so much, enough to give it a 3.
So let me break it down a little for you.
OVERVIEW: The basic premise is that today, in 2016, young James Watson (Jamie Watson), descendent of John Watson, author of the Sherlock Holmes Stories about Sherlock Holmes, finds himself in a Connecticut boarding school and a classmate of Charlotte Holmes, a descendent of the infamous Sherlock Holmes. There is a bit of magical realism here with acting as though the original John Watson and Sherlock Holmes were real characters and have since gone on to spawn generations of Holmes – Watson pairings. Now, in the fall semester at the school, a former assaulter of Charlotte and rival of Jamie’s turns up missing in a crime eerily similar to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Jamie, an aspiring writer, settles into the Watson sidekick role to the aloof and eccentric Charlotte. Jamie can’t help but develop feelings for Charlotte, who may or may not feel the same. As more crimes unfold, Jamie struggles with his sidekick role. Charlotte struggles to let anyone in to her world.
THE BAD: I hate judging writing as “bad,” so I’ll come back and revise that later. I just thought we should get the less than stellar parts out of the way first. There were a few things that I felt were insurmountable about this book. Let me go over them in more detail.
- A STUDY IN CONVENIENCES
One of the main issues I had with this book is that there were so many convenient things that happened, even things that had no logical reason for happening at all. Take for example the simple premise of the location. Jamie and Charlotte both happen to end up at some random boarding school in Connecticut even though Jamie had previously been attending school in his native England. Meanwhile, his father (a Watson) lives in Connecticut about like half an hour a way. It’s a very confusing dynamic. It doesn’t quite make sense. Even when it’s explained, it doesn’t quite make sense and does not serve the mystery/plot/novel. This was just the tip of the ice berg. I grew very weary of mentally (and sometimes audibly) thinking, “Oh, how convenient.” Non-spoiler example: Jamie constantly wants to know more about a certain individual. Holmes won’t tell him anything about it. How convenient that the next time Jamie and Holmes are at his father’s place, he just happens to have a file with information that helps Jamie. Wow! Folks, this isn’t creative or original. Conflict and tension are at the heart of any good fiction. There should always be problems driving the narrative, ones that aren’t constantly fixed by happy coincidences. Characters should have to work for their happily ever afters, and that doesn’t mean that they get there easily. So I just felt that A Study in Charlotte lacked proper tension because everything seemed to be solved by way of convenient outs. There was never any doubt in my mind that things weren’t going to work out.
- A TALE OF MANY ENDINGS
When I got past the first 50 pages, I thought, damn, this book is good. I hope it never ends. By page 250 I thought, okay, let’s wind things up. And then I kept on thinking that as the plot continued to bleed out for another 70 pages. Every time it could have ended, it seemed like 10 more pages were added as the novel went in more and more directions. So many characters were introduced only to serve bit parts in the larger picture. Dear god. It just wouldn’t stop. It’s difficult to feel a book was amazing when you were literally skimming the last 50 pages feeling drained of all life and energy and stamina by the end. Not a pleasant reading experience. Furthermore, the mystery seems to be solved and then unsolved so many times throughout the course of the narrative that is unsolved and then solved and then unsolved. Come on!
- FREE WILL VS. DESTINY
This novel raises questions of free will vs. destiny in a way that veers towards the contrived but at best makes you rethink fiction. Initially, I couldn’t stand that Jamie Watson and Charlotte Holmes were destined to be together, that it would always end up that a Watson and a Holmes would exist and partner up. Additionally, that certain characteristics from the original characters would be passed down the generation. For example, Charlotte Holmes was a user, she was semi-addicted to Oxy. Fine, but did she get to age 12 and think, well, I’m a Holmes, I have to start using a drug now because that’s what we’ve always done? Personally, I’ve been in the shoes of anyone who felt growing up that they had to be just like their parents because it was what was expected of them. My dad was an English teacher, his parents were English teachers, so when I discovered that I loved literature and wanted to devote my time to it, did that make that inevitable? When would I ever have some kind of original desires and interests, or was I just going to be genetically just like my parents? This really annoyed me when I was a teen, and eventually I’ve grown out of it.
But when I was a teen, if I were Charlotte Holmes or Jamie Watson, I wouldn’t be running right into the light of genetics and hereditary interests, I would be running as far away as possible. Jamie Watson’s family liked to write? If I were him, I would be repelled by books and writing and major in math. If I were Charlotte Holmes, I would be squeaky-clean, drug-phobe who avoided crime at all costs. Because when you’re a teen, you don’t want to be “expected.” The last thing you want to be is just like your parents.
When I was a teen, I wanted to be nothing like my parents. Turns out I love books, just like Dad. But I tried to bury that for a good part of high school. So that part of A Study in Charlotte rang hollow for me.
THE GOOD: There was actually quite a bit of good to this novel, so much so that it outweighed the negative in many cases. Let’s go over some of the novel’s strong points.
- CHARACTER DYNAMICS
I fell in love with Jamie Watson and Charlotte Holmes. I felt the budding romance between them was completely natural and made my stomach flutter with butterflies. I loved that Charlotte Holmes is not a manic pixie dream girl and Jamie Holmes is very much aware of how he depicts her and views her as a kind of hero worship slash infatuation. Brittany Cavallaro is also great at dialogue. Charlotte and Jamie had distinct ways of talking, and their conversations, both the words they spoke and those left unsaid, were so real. Of all the characters, they were the most three dimensional, which was extremely tricky to pull off when one of the characters is in love with the other. Cavallaro pushed against the expected and created characters who were completely original while still fitting into the Holmes – Watson canon.
- JAMIE’S VOICE
Jamie Watson had a great narrative voice. He definitely had a turn for the romantic, as he (and Charlotte) readily noted. And yet, he was at turns funny, wistful, detached, sentimental, and mature. In other words, the exact kind of narrator you want for a novel, and a narrator who echoes some of the same tone of John Watson (aka Arthur Conan Doyle) of the original Sherlock Holmes novels. If you’re going to read a quite uneven novel that’s sort of a hot mess, you want a narrator like the adorably teen guy Jamie Watson. Also, something should be said for Charlotte Holmes, who only narrates a very brief passage in the novel. One can only hope that we read more from her in the future.
- LIMITLESS POTENTIAL
The reason why I am giving this novel 3 stars but feel in my heart that it could even be a 5-star read is because I think Brittany Cavallaro has a ton of talent. There is already a sequel, The Last of August, to be released in winter 2017. I’ve read a few debut novels over the last few years, including Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, William Ritter’s Jackaby, and Tana French’s In the Woods that transcend any imperfections because they announce the presence of a new talent in literature. These are writers whose first novels were neither perfect nor free of mistakes. But I will read anything they write, and I feel the same way about Brittany Cavallaro.
So my ultimate verdict for you is to please read Brittany Cavallaro’s A Study in Charlotte. When it’s at its worst, it’s still miles above the competition. It is fresh, funny, and gloriously sentimental. For Holmes fans, it’s a must buy. Read and enjoy.
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