I imagine the conversation went something like this:
“Ms. Bray, I have an idea for your next book.”
“Well, the researcher who worked on The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York left some notes lying in the library, and someone I know swiped ’em.”
“Perfect! What should we make it about?”
“Hmm, not sure. Let’s come back to it.”
“Okay. Target audience?”
“Well, you have some cred in Young Adult, and the field is on fire. If we make it about a 17 year-old and her friends, we can draw in the pre-teens and the twenty-somethings, no problem.”
“Excellent. We’ll need a romance. Women love romance.”
“I guess we can do that two-guys-competing for the same woman situation that was so popular in The Hunger Games. If we make it into a series, we can draw out the romantic tension over a couple of books.”
“Sounds perfect. Do you have a plot yet?”
“Well, that Harry Potter book was a huge hit and made a ton of dough. Superheros and the like are the rage. What if we say the group of friends has special powers?”
“I don’t know, that sounds like a lot of work. Just how special do they have to be?”
“We can just make it mysterious and say they are learning about it, so it doesn’t have to be anything really thought out. I can put one of the interns on it for the second book.”
“Cool. And the antagonist?”
“Stick with that H.P. thing and say there’s this really, really evil guy trying to come back to life, and they are trying to stop him from bringing about the end of the world. That’ll probably draw in horror fans too.”
“Perfect. Draft it out and let me know when you are done.”
Try as I might–summer afternoon, comfy deck chair, an open-ended day just made for endless reading–I was unable to enjoy The Diviners. Libba Bray did a tremendous amount of research on the roaring 20s in New York. The trouble is, she wanted to share all of it. This is a elaborate setting badly in need of characters and plot. Someone took their cardboard cut-outs from the “Young Adult Paper Doll Book” and inserted into the pretty-flapper-Great Gatsby-land. There’s the Ingenue who thinks she’s experienced. The square but supportive friend. The emotionally reserved uncle (includes one bonus secret past). The charming, rakish thief. Young quiet intellectual male hiding secret affection. The earnest detective. The possibly-scary elderly ladies living next door. The religious black woman. The runaway wife. The gay piano player (aren’t they all?). The child speaking prophecy. About the only one of interest is the Poet-cum-Numbers Runner.
Plot is straight out of “innocent-investigates-murder” only it took until page 80 to get the first murder. Up until then we’re treated to extensive description of our heroine drinking, partying and sassing. Gee, I wonder if her experiences will help her grow up? By the time we find a dead body, I had been up and down out of my chair about eight times, looking for other things to entertain me.
(spoiler follows) When Uncle is hauled away in cuffs due to mistakenly attributed blame, was anyone surprised? I can just tell someone is going to be kidnapped and used in an awful ritual before special powers save the day (end spoiler).
When I got to the second young man romancing our heroine (oh, it’s not a spoiler–this is a modern young adult book), I was ready to stab myself.
I tend to read for three things: plot, character and language. Usually at least one can sustain me through a book, but that just didn’t happen today. Characters here lack subtlety, dimensionality and interest. Plot was so routine that absolutely nothing about it surprised me. Language that is mostly defined by 20s vernacular and only devoted to creating the setting. There’s not even a wider philosophical ideas here to create the illusion of a thoughtful approach. Belief creates reality, yada yada, except when it doesn’t. Bray breaks narrative character in a couple sections to lecture the reader on 1920s racism. How educational!
Redeeming factors: ability to create a sense of place in time in America. Mostly. Mostly the movie perception of it, actually, of flappers and haircuts and kids on the corner selling newspapers and sneaking alcohol everywhere. Okay, so it mostly succeeds at writing Great Gatsby scenes.
I can’t help the one star–it completely missed me, even though it should have been a three star at least, given the sassy female, the fantastical elements, the description of period New York, all ingredients that usually appeal to me.