Book Review: Conversion by Katherine Howe

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The frenzy of the Salem witch trials meets modern-day mean girls and prep school pressure cookers in Conversion by Katherine Howe, a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller about a mysterious illness plaguing a Catholic high school.

conversionIt’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?

Juxtaposed with the 18th century confession of one of the girls behind the Salem witch trials, Conversion is a slowly-unfolded drama about the pressures facing a group of students at an all girls school, in the second term of their senior year. Howe paints an interesting portrait of the ensuing saga, with richly imagined characters and multiple facets to the storyline.

Though compelling, Conversionis not without its faults. My primary complaint is that the synopsis — that only Colleen has made the connection between what’s happening in Danvers and the Salem witch trials — is a bit misleading. It’s not until nearly the end that Colleen finally makes the connection, but as a reader it’s been made clear from the beginning — and Colleen’s slow catch-up is very frustrating to read. In many cases, it bogs down the pace of the book.

That said, I was still eager to get to the real root of the mystery: WAS it magic? Was it poisoning? Were all the girls faking, and if so, how had they all coordinated it? What was really behind the illnesses? And those questions kept me turning the pages.

Ultimately, the book is a social examination. Conversion looks at the pressures teens face: from themselves, from their parents, from school, and from society — and what those pressures can do, when pushed to extremes.

Conversion is in stores July 1st.

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