Review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's DaughterThe Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jekyll, Hyde, Holmes, Watson, Rappaccini, Moreau, Frankenstein, and more – “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter” is as delightfully intelligent and fun re-imagining of various classic mad scientist stories – combined with a wealth of other literary influences.

The adventure begins when Mary Jekyll, daughter of the renowned Dr. Jekyll, encounters the daughter of the infamous Mr. Hyde – a girl with uncertain connections to Mary’s own past. As the women find themselves involved in a murder investigation, they encounter a cast of familiar characters and begin to uncover the existence of a secret society with ties to all their lives.

There is so much brilliance in this book. First of all, it is a grand mystery adventure. Sherlock Holmes is in true form as he and Watson assist the women in uncovering the secrets of their fathers. Goss’s voice is engaging, and the characters in this book speak with wit, fire, and sincerity as they clash and collaborate with each other. Full of secrets, chases, intrigue, and surprises – the story blends fast-paced adventure with Victorian practicality to great effect. The women in the story face real danger and sinister machinations, but they face it all with fortitude, sensibility, and a healthy dose of humor. For this alone, the story is a pleasure to read.

But there is still more to praise within this book. “Written” predominantly by Catherine Moreau, the novel is a compilation of the voices and perspectives of the five monstrous women who are at its center. The story is a combination of all their voices – a monstrous thing in itself, as the characters state. But the stitching together of separate parts is not always an easy business, and the characters themselves interrupt the narrative in order to offer their own perspectives, thoughts, and disagreements about events. This meta element of the narrative allows for recognition of the differences between experience, memory, truth, and story. The effect is a deconstruction of literature that also celebrates the beauty of storytelling while reinforcing the themes of the central narrative.

While the structure of the book allows for an examination of narrative, the characters themselves also turn a critical eye on views of gender and the role of women in literature and life. The very existence of this novel is an examination of monstrous women in literature – women who are often unnamed, secondary, and ultimately destroyed. Rewriting those narratives, these women take center stage and are able to make their voices and their stories heard.

Furthermore, woven into the plot is a discussion of social views of women. Throughout the adventure, Mary and the others discuss the difficulties of women’s clothing, social views of propriety, and the ability of women to achieve far more than may be expected of them. Within the book, there is a recognition of the benefits of social progress and a celebration of the power of women – especially those made by and then cast out from society.

These deeper themes work particularly well because they are not tacked onto the narrative or shoved in the face of the reader. They arise naturally from the characters, from the story, from the very structure of the novel. Goss’s distinctive voice and style work on every level of the novel. The themes are clear, but they are also sensible in the context in which they appear. They belong in this story and fit there as easily as the chase scenes and mad scientists.

All in all, this is a wonderful book. It is a fun adventure that celebrates both its literary influences and the role of women, while also turning a critical eye on both of these things. And this critical eye is not dry analysis – it is marked by wit, attitude, and humor. Adventure, monsters, classic literature, mystery, Victorian sensibility, modern perspective – this book has it all. It offers a fresh voice with powerful perspective, that delivered everything I wanted and left me excited for more.

*Now, in full disclosure, Dora was my thesis mentor in grad school, and I was already a big fan of her work – so I won’t claim a complete lack of bias here, but still, the book really is that good.*

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