Novel: Conversion by Katherine Howe | Goodreads
Release Date: July 1, 2014
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane comes a chilling mystery—Prep meets The Crucible.
It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ texts: Through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t.
First it’s the school’s queen bee, Clara Rutherford, who suddenly falls into uncontrollable tics in the middle of class. Her mystery illness quickly spreads to her closest clique of friends, then more students and symptoms follow: seizures, hair loss, violent coughing fits. St. Joan’s buzzes with rumor; rumor blossoms into full-blown panic.
Soon the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts, as everyone scrambles to find something, or someone, to blame. Pollution? Stress? Or are the girls faking? Only Colleen—who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit—comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuries ago . . .
Inspired by true events—from seventeenth-century colonial life to the halls of a modern-day high school—Conversion casts a spell. With her signature wit and passion, New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe delivers an exciting and suspenseful novel, a chilling mystery that raises the question, what’s really happening to the girls at St. Joan’s?
I’ll definitely be rereading this one for Halloween. This evocative novel drenched in mystery is compelling to say the least, with the lingering suspense that creates a dark mood beyond its pages.
The historical story in this one actually really made me want to read The Crucible. The way the girls fed off of the panic and clamor was both horrifying and exhilarating. Questions of why were interspersed with the thrill of lying, of creating something bigger than themselves. The characterization was sharp, in perfect sync with mannerisms and the slick history portrayed. The historical parts were chilling in that sense, filled with an unbridled hysteria and fear from the witches. The mood-building was epic.
The accuracy of the research and the intelligent nature only served to heighten the intensity. I loved learning more about it. From the clarity of narrators’ voices to the stunning intricacy of historical detail, the Salem witches’ trial coverage was equally shocking and engaging. Once I got into the story, it didn’t let go.
The contemporary scenes weren’t as outwardly paranormal as I was expecting but instead hedged into magical realism territory. Instead of suspecting any sort of magical goings-on or phenomena, scientists and the school community sought far-fetched diagnoses ranging from radiation to forms of mental disease. While I wish some of the tension had been extended from the ending to earlier in the book, I appreciated the lengths Howe went to keep it more realistic.
We knew what was going on from the historical perspective but had virtually no idea what happened from the contemporary side. What was going on at St. Joan’s? The intrigue kept me hooked, picking up the book at breakfast and any free time I could use to escape into it.
One detail that I appreciated was the depth of the academic obsession on the side of the St. Joan’s girls. The hunger for AP classes, extracurriculars, extra credit, colleges, and all, is one of the most frenzied depictions as show in YA. It’s pretty realistic for those of us who are ambitious enough to fall into the insanity of academic success. I loved it. I loved the character- while Colleen wasn’t as immediately warm per se as Harper from Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins (another college fiend), she was still relatable and motivated. I seriously adore driven characters, particularly fed from the same intensity that Colleen was.
Another interesting detail was how the pure act of being ill led to whispers and privilege, a presence that gave the afflicted girls a kind of power. If there’s anything from The Crucible that Howe really retained, it was the shock and awe trailing each girl. It was a presence felt in both Danvers (the contemporary setting) and the lore of Salem.
Supporting characters were strong and vibrant. Colleen was engrossed in the fight for valedictorian which led her to become a little self-absorbed in parts of the novel, but she began to realize that her friends were going through things she didn’t even know about as the disease took its toll. From a student-teacher relationship to a disorder to love affairs, she was aware of several things and blissfully ignorant of others. Emma – one of her friends dealing with a particularly fascinating conflict throughout – was alarming in the sense that we weren’t sure whether or not we could trust her. It was interesting to see how she interacted with all of them throughout, and how her focus only sharpened as she learned more. The more I read about each of the characters, the more that I enjoyed them.
There was a romance, but it wasn’t a main facet of the book. Colleen was too focused on her own ambitions and the dark goings-on at her school to be drawn head-first into a romance. It was refreshing to see a character whose life wasn’t entirely changed when she met a boy, but it continued on as a pleasing sub-plot, with all the anxiety and sweetness of any budding relationship.
Her family was an additional plus. They perfectly complemented the tone of the novel, concerned about the outbreak and encouraging her college aspirations but still fading into the background enough for them to not overshadow important points. Colleen relied a lot on her parents’ presence and they were a relevant part of her life. Little scenes like watching the news together before breakfast contributed a comforting tone to an otherwise chilling continuity in the plot. It wasn’t yet another absentee-parents trope come to life.
The pacing was rather phenomenal. When I got about four hundred pages in, I was still shocked that I had gotten in so deeply. But pacing-wise, I would have liked some of the tension present at the end to have been introduced earlier. With such a cinematic buildup, the ending felt a bit too hasty. I relished the climax of the book and it would have been even better if those plot threads had gone a little deeper.
While Conversion’s ending wrapped up a little more conveniently than I would have liked, the eerie mood and frenzied characters added to a cinematic atmosphere. I loved the climbing hysteria, the smart touches of wit that the main character brought to a familiar storyline. This is one that I think will please most who read it.