RITA Reader Challenge Review

RITA Reader Challenge: The Anatomist’s Wife by Anna Lee Huber


Title: The Anatomist's Wife
Author: Anna Lee Huber
Publication Info: Berkley 2012
ISBN: 9780425253281
Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Book The Anatomist's Wife This RITA® Reader Challenge 2013 review was written by Harper Gray. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Best First Book and the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements categories.

The summary:     

Scotland, 1830. Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister's estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when her hosts throw a house party for the cream of London society, Kiera is unable to hide from the ire of those who believe her to be as unnatural as her husband, an anatomist who used her artistic talents to suit his own macabre purposes.

Kiera wants to put her past aside, but when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to utilize her knowledge of human anatomy to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage–a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn't about to let her guard down as accusations and rumors swirl.

When Kiera and Gage's search leads them to even more gruesome discoveries, a series of disturbing notes urges Lady Darby to give up the inquiry. But Kiera is determined to both protect her family and prove her innocence, even as she risks becoming the next victim…

And here is Harper's review:

I had serious trouble writing this review. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed The Anatomist’s Wife, but I found it significantly more difficult to come to grips with other things about the book – unhappily for review writing, chief among them the conclusion of the mystery. Ah well, we soldier on as best we can.

As the widow of an anatomist in a society still traumatized by the murderer-grave robbers Burke and Hare, Lady Darby has spent the last sixteen months recovering at the highland castle of her sister following a harrowing inquisition into her role as the illustrator for her husband’s dissections. Even after all this time, few people outside her family circle believe that her interest did not extend beyond painting the diagrams, and when a murder is perpetrated during a house party on her sister’s estate, Lady Darby immediately falls under suspicion. If found guilty by the prosecutor fiscal, it is unlikely that she will be found innocent a second time, regardless of the truth.

This set up appealed to me, as it gave Lady Darby a vested interest in using these four days to find the murderer. This interest coupled with what felt like a natural curiosity made her assistance of Mr Gage, the friend of her brother-in-law who, conveniently, also works as an investigator, feel like a sensible move. What did not feel so sensible, however, was on the one hand the repeated presentation of Lady Darby as a victim of her husband. If she had been so traumatized by illustrating for him, who in their right mind would suggest that she assist on the case? Once she did, her sensitivity to handling the body seemed a little incongruous to me. I don’t expect a scientific interest to suddenly burst forth from her after her previous indifference, but this squeamishness seemed at odds with both her plucky character as revealed throughout the book as well as the fact that she had apparently been illustrating for her husband for quite some time before he died.

Lady Darby narrates the whole of the novel, but her plentiful observations – sometimes even giving the reader insights which Lady Darby herself does not always seem to recognize the importance of – provide the reader with excellent opportunities to observe alongside her. Sometimes it seems as though Ms Huber underestimates the prerogative of the first-person narrator: Lady Darby realizes, observes, notices and supposes in many places where the simple fact that she’s the one narrating the story not only already makes this clear, but also makes such assertions jarringly redundant.

The romance proceeds quietly, gradually, and, I must say, adorably. The development of Lady Darby and Mr Gage’s relationship enhanced the mystery without overshadowing it or making it seem like an excuse to throw Hero and Heroine together for Romance. The mystery itself kept me engaged…up until chapter twenty-six, when Lady Darby really begins to twig on who the murderer is. Alas, one of my most serious problems with The Anatomist’s Wife is the resolution of the murder mystery, which of course I can’t discuss in detail without spoilers. Suffice to say that I did not find the motive logical, nor did the explanation of said motive satisfy me. At all. The final chapters left me with a cold feeling of, ‘But that can’t be it…can it?’

One thing I really must mention under a SPOILER: As soon as the murderer was revealed, I realised that they had never actually interviewed him. Granted, there were a lot of guests whom they did not interview personally, but as this man was a figure in someone else’s alibi, and the lover of the deceased…it didn’t strike me in the course of things, but once I finished the book I become more and more uncomfortable about such a…gap in the investigation.

The other review brought up Ms Huber’s use of dialect, and I find that I really have to mention it as well. The dialect used here was…immersion-breaking. Having lived in Scotland, the ‘Scottish accents’ didn’t strike me as remotely authentic, and the ‘French accent’ just felt stereotypical. Syntax has the potential to convey a person’s background much more subtly, sure it does. And in fact I had a hard time believing that Philip would have a Scots accent if he grew up in the highlands, where Scottish Gaelic would be the more prevalent minority language. I know the phenomenon of exhaustion stripping away an acquired accent: my stepfather becomes more Arkansas-accented the more tired he becomes. But depending on whether Philip’s from Aberdeen or farther west than Inverness, his childhood accent could be quite different. This all may sound like the splitting and re-splitting of a quarter-cut hair, but it illustrates the underlying point: I lacked a real sense of time and place; everyone always hates the info-dump, but the descriptions of the highlands felt very stock to me, like the accents, and the manners and mannerisms occasionally seemed ill-placed for 1830’s Britain, particularly the public affection between Lady Darby’s sister Alana and Philip, her husband. Ms Huber seems very conscious of explaining things to a modern-day audience, where she might have revealed more by showing what Lady Darby assumed to be proper, rather than explaining why it was so.

I know it may appear pedantic to mention editorial errors; however, there is one which I feel I ought to point out. On page 90, Gage asks Lady Stratford whether Lord Stratford is currently in India. It is of rather critical importance that this should read as Lord Godwin, not Stratford, Godwin being the husband of the murdered woman.

Despite my reservations, I really did enjoy The Anatomist’s Wife. Although I occasionally felt a bit lost in the environment and jarred by non sequiters, It kept me engaged enough to overlook most of them until it came time to write my review. Ms Huber shows potential, and I think I will look for the next Lady Darby mystery.

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