Dana Schwartz’s novel is a YA period piece with modern guts
If you don’t know who Dana Schwartz is, you may already know her voice. A former critic for the likes of Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair, her pop-culture-laced bon mots hold sway on Twitter. But you may also literally already know her voice, as the creator and host of the top-charting podcast Noble Blood, which delves into the sordid, scandalous, and yes, bloody affairs of royals famous and infamous.
Appropriately enough, both strands of Schwartz join forces in her new novel, Anatomy: A Love Story. The publisher lists the book as Young Adult, but like many big sellers in that category–The Hunger Games, The Fault In Our Stars, Harry Potter–only nebulously so because of its protagonists’ ages. However, it does not hew to the path of the first two, as my 9-year-old son says of most YA: “Which boy do I choose????” And in contrast to that semi-famous yarn about a British boarding school, it vastly prefers science to magic.
Schwartz has set ‘Anatomy’ in early 19th century Edinburgh. She tells the tale of Hazel Sinnett, a young woman from a rich and “important” family, whose social expectations are all too rapidly turning into marital ones. But for brilliant, plucky, anti-conventional Hazel, marriage is the last thing on her mind. Instead, she is besotted with the burgeoning, albeit still often crude and speculative, field of early-1800s medicine.
And this is a fascinating time for that, as it’s still a world between paradigms: technological and industrial progress in a heated duel with — but still largely under the thumb of – culturally domineering Christianity and superstition.
So grab your swooning couch and smelling salts, Reader, because it will shock you to hear that at this time, society did not deem the practice of medicine to be proper for a lady! And therein lies the book’s central tensions and narrative. Hazel endeavors–through means bookish, macabre, and incognito–to teach herself all that humanity knows about the human body and its workings.
Hazel’s able to get away with it – just – because of her family’s unique situation. Her father is dispatched abroad, keeping watch over a freshly imprisoned Napoleon. And a plague called “Roman fever” has been sweeping through Edinburgh, and took her older brother, the would-be heir apparent. This makes Hazel’s mother laser-focused on the life of her younger brother, and all but oblivious to Hazel’s existence, other than as eventual marriage stock.
And in this broad swath of atypical freedom, Hazel runs across another unique feature of this time: “resurrection men,” gravediggers paid to illicitly unearth cadavers to sell to physicians for research. Enter Jack Currer, a grimy Dickensian scrapper with a winning smile and ready wit. Among his gigs is resurrection work, and this brings him into orbit with Hazel. With her mother and brother decamped to London, Hazel hires Jack to bring him research fodder, even as society’s noose tightens around both of them.
Do I even need to mention that – despite Hazel’s from-birth betrothal to her “proper” landed cousin (!) – she and Jack inevitably fall for each other?
As it turns out, “barely.” Because this is the prime example of how Schwartz changes out the old, rusty gears of stories about unhappy young rich girls for a barnburner about one with a mind, and a mission. The “love story” of the title is Hazel’s unquenchable lust for learning, healing the sick, and blowing up all the rules that tell her she can’t.
And that gets us into the true guts of the book. The stinking, steaming, viscera that Schwartz offers us up on page after page. We become fast friends with bones, sinews, rotted teeth, detached eyeballs, and discomfitingly hard-to-identify organs. But this isn’t horror-novel genre porn. Instead, it weirdly feels good– the book envelops us in Hazel’s excited point of view that all of this is forbidden knowledge.
Hazel’s–and to a lesser extent, Jack’s–quest for this holy grail of human gristle offers the perfect storyline to give us a deliciously haunting, pulse-pounding carriage ride through Gothic times, minus the “Goth” crap. Schwartz follows in the footsteps of her fellow literary corpse-meddler Mary Shelley, but now in the gleefully muddied boots of a heroine who doesn’t moan about hubris, or playing God, or, really, anything. Schwartz knows her way around our adrenal glands almost as well as her heroine, and exploits them to equal effect. The stakes of Hazel’s mission accelerate into a series of shocking yet satisfying twists on a conventional ending (of which Hazel herself would likely approve).
If I have one quibble, it’s that the Jack character gets a little short shrift. Schwartz sketches him out as the perfect embodiment of who Hazel’s inappropriate-and-yet-oh-so-perfect love foil needs to be. But like his shady profession–he often just disappears until Hazel calls for his services again. However, to be fair, that relegates him to a role played by far too many female “companion” characters in male-driven stories. I can forgive it as a form of literary reparations.
But on the whole, Anatomy: A Love Story entertainingly flips the script on several genres all at once. Bone-chilling becomes bone-cheering, a murder mystery sneaks up on us instead of yanking on our sleeves throughout, and a teenage girl burns with passion for something beyond a sharp jawline. It’s a “coming of age” story, but this time, it’s the age that needs to catch up with its heroine, like, yesterday.
(Wednesday Books, January 18, 2022)