Monday, December 19, 2011

Contagion by Joanne Dahme

Published October 5, 2010.

Rose Dugan is a young and beautiful woman living in Philadelphia in the late 19th century passionate about keeping Philadelphia’s water reservoir clean and healthy. But when Rose starts receiving threatening letters, warning her to convince her husband to shut down his plans for a water filtration system or else, things take a turn for the worse. A conspicuous murder and butting heads cause Rose to search for the culprit, the truth, and a way to keep the people of Philadelphia safe from contagion in more ways than one. (

I almost gave up on this one. Am I glad I stuck it out? Meh. It was okay. What had me wanting to put it down originally was the language. Names were heinously overused in dialogue and for me, that really stands out. People don't say each other's names when talking to each other that often. It just ends up sounding stilted and it was used so much that it grated on me enough to want to walk away. Plus the plot was really lagging at the beginning. It didn't seem to be going anywhere and it was heavily involved in the intricacies of water filtration. Good on the author for knowing her stuff, but I think far too much of that knowledge was transferred to the page unnecessarily. There were points where it really bogged down the plot and I started not wanting to pick up the book again when I put it down.

But once Nellie died, everything picked up and the suspense held me to the page enough that I wanted to keep reading. Just barely. Another pervasive irk was the insistence of people's clothing. Regardless of the POV, both Rose and Sean were exceptionally detailed about what people were wearing. Again, good on the author for being historically accurate, but again I think it was a little too much knowledge transferred to the page for my liking. I got the images the first time around. By the 25th time, I was over it. But the plot, once it picked up with Nellie's death, I was able to push aside these issues that I had and it kept me engaged in the story.

For all of the rather useless information that was dumped throughout, Dahme definitely knows how to write suspense. I absolutely wanted to know if Sean had ulterior motives and if Patrick really was the slime that he appeared to be. I really did want to find out who was behind Nellie's death and whether Patrick's faithful housemaid was just a bit touched or if she was really dangerous.

Really, the best part was how Dahme connected something as innocuous as water filtration to something sinister. It's so subtle yet so horrifying but absolutely believable. In people's bids for power and money, I wouldn't put it past them to make sacrifices out of others. It's been done before and I have no doubt it'll be done again. So while Dahme was heavy-handed with the water works information at the beginning, it did serve a bit of a purpose later on in the story. I think it would have been just as effective without so much but since she's heavy into Philadelphia's water treatment herself, I think it's only natural that it would be front and center in a story like this.

The most infuriating part of the story for me was Rose's insistence at defending her husband despite all of the evidence overwhelming him. Maybe it was a voice of the time, which I do believe. But I'd like to think that even women who were bred to stand by their man would exhibit some kind of independent thought. And since we get to be in Rose's head for half the story, you'd be able to see if something like that cropped up. But how she'd melt at a touch from her husband and forget her worries made me want to scream. I couldn't stand it. It did get very bad towards the end and really colored my vision of Rose but keeping the time in mind, I'm wondering how many options she actually had.

The ending I found both too easy and nominally satisfying. It's a decent juxtaposition. I don't want to spoil it so I'll just say that it wrapped up really abruptly and I think it gave Rose an easy way out. It saved her from actually having to fight and stand up to anyone. That bothered me. But at the same time she did stand up to people, as much as a woman of that time could. So can I really fault her for not being stronger? I don't know. But I was, in some part of me, satisfied with the ending. It rounded out the story nicely and left Rose's life open. It ended in a good spot.

Overall, the suspense was good and if you stick with the plot, it will pick itself up pretty nicely. The story had it's pitfalls but the plot was good enough to just cancel all of that out. Not one of my favorite reads but I'd recommend it just to see how good suspense can be.

Ban Factor: Low - Another historical set in one of the prissiest times in American history. They're really digging if they find something they contest in this one.
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