The Bone Garden

Tess Gerritsen
2008 reissue of 2007 release, Historical Mystery (1830s Boston)
Ballantine, $7.99, 487 pages, Amazon ASIN 0345497619

Grade: C+
Sensuality: Subtle

The Bone Garden was my book club book this month, and since Tess Gerritsen got her start in romance, I thought it might hold some interest for romance fans. Indeed, it has some romantic elements, but oddly, those are the book's weaker elements; its medical and historical aspects are better written and more interesting.

The book is a historical mystery of sorts, though parts take place in the present. Julia Hamill is a newly divorced woman who buys an old home, almost on a whim. While digging in the garden, she finds a skeleton of a woman who was murdered long ago. Since her personal life is a mess, Julia finds the skeleton to be a welcome distraction. When an old man (whose relative was the former owner of Julia's new home) invites her to come to Maine to look at some documents, she agrees immediately. What follows is a story that takes place mostly in the past, featuring 19th century medical students, Irish immigrants, and a mysterious murderer.

Norris Marshall is a poor medical student in 1830 Boston, paying for his education with a side job as a "resurectionist" - someone who unearths the recently deceased so they can be used for medical study. He crosses paths with Rose Connolly, an Irish immigrant whose pregnant sister dies in the hospital where Norris studies. The baby survives the birth, and Rose vows to protect her niece (Margaret) at all costs, even though several parties advise her against it. She has little means of support and an angry brother in law who wants to rape her and exploit her. Rose puts Margaret in the care of a wet-nurse and takes a job sewing.

But there are greater forces at work, and signs indicate that someone has an interest in baby Margaret. At Rose's sister's funeral, one of the hospital nurses advises Rose to hide the baby. The next day, Rose witnesses the nurse's murder at the hands of (as she puts it), a monster wearing a cape. Two other people involved with the hospital die as well, and pretty soon the whole city fears "the Reaper". All of the bodies were cut with force and evident skill, and since Norris is the best dissector in his class, suspicion falls upon him.

As the book progresses, Norris and Rose finds their destinies tied together. Both are suspects for one reason or another, and each feels the need to discover the Reaper's identity. On the whole, the plot is fairly complex. In addition to mystery of the reaper, there is a subplot involving an unethical resurectionist, and quite a bit about the medical school. One of Norris's classmates is the namesake of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Rose's sister's death sparks Holmes's interest in the childbed fever and its contagion. Though that element is obviously fictional, it was Holmes who years later popularized the practice of doctor's washing their hands, which effectively ended the childbed fever epidemic.

The historical and medical aspects of the book are the best thing about it. The time period is interesting, and the medical school angle is unique. Gerritsen was a doctor before she was an author, and her medical training is is put to good use. It might not be the best book for the squeamish, as both murder and medical procedures are written in great detail. But it's all accurate for the time period. Some of the characters in the book are actual historical figures (Holmes is the most obvious), and since the 1830s is a relatively overlooked period in fiction, I found it all pretty interesting.

There are two things that hold The Bone Garden back from being a better read. The first is that the interpersonal relationships are both poorly written and not terribly believable. Rose and Norris eventually become a couple, but they are not a very convincing one, and some of their actions make little sense for the time period. Rose's annoying habit of referring to Norris as "Norrie" doesn't help much either. And a modern relationship involving Julia and a neighbor is similarly unsatisfying. It comes across as so tepid and half-hearted that one wonders why the author bothered to write it in the first place.

The book's other problem is that the eventual resolution to the murder plot is pretty lame. The suspense and the build up is entertaining, but the denouement completely disappoints. It ends the book on a bad note, which is unfortunate since there are parts of it that work much better.

Historical fiction fans may find this worth reading despite its flaws. While I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, I did find it interesting in many ways. It may be a mixed bag, but it's not a complete waste of time.

-- Blythe Barnhill

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