Sunday 12 March 2017

#CBR9 Book 23: "A Study in Charlotte" by Brittany Cavallaro

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

English teenage boy James "Jamie" (although he really would prefer it if you didn't call him that, even if NO ONE seems to listen to him) Watson has been given a scholarship to a preppy boarding school in Connecticut, not far away from where his father lives with his new family. He's rather excited about the chance to meet another of the students there, though, the already famous Charlotte Holmes. James and Charlotte's great-great-great-grandfathers were one of the most famous pairings in history, after all, and even though their families don't exactly keep in touch much after all these years, James has always imagined what adventures he might have with Charlotte if he ever got a chance to meet her.

What he had not imagined was becoming a number one murder suspect right along with her, however. When a fellow student turns up dead in his dorm room, about two weeks after James beat said student up for saying some really unpleasant things about Charlotte, in a murder clearly inspired by some of Watson's great-great-great-grandfather's stories, being the new kid in school becomes about a million times worse than it normally is. While the prickly, troubled and volatile Charlotte previously showed no interest in making friends, she now enlists James in her quest to clear their names. The murderer has a powerful grudge against Charlotte Holmes, it seems, and appears quite happy to continue trying to ruin her life, and James Watson's along with her, if he keeps insisting that he wants to be her friend.

This book appeared on a lot of "Best of 2016 YA lists" and is one in a long line of current adaptations where authors/screen writers are reimagining the stories of Sherlock Holmes in new ways or taking inspiration from them to do their own thing. Off the top of my head, in addition to the Guy Richie Sherlock Holmes movies, the BBC Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, Elementary with Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, there is also Colleen Gleason's Steampunk YA series, Stoker and Holmes, Ellie Marney's Every series (which I just finished) and Sherry Thomas' gender-bent historicals, Lady Sherlock. So it isn't like Britanny Cavallaro is doing something entirely new or wholly original, but rather taking advantage of an already popular trend.

Her take is a fun one, but I must admit, for a book called A Study in Charlotte, I felt like the character I got to know the best of the two was James, and Charlotte, for all that she's not exactly had an easy life of it, remained a cipher for much of the book and a fairly dislikable one at that. Obviously, being a Holmes, she's frankly supposed to be prickly, unpredictable, volatile and somewhat socially inept. And within a fictional framework where it's quite clear that the Holmes family for generations have expected nothing but brilliance and deductive reasoning from their children, it's no surprise that she's high-maintenance.

As Holmes are wont to do, she self-medicates with a number of substances. It's suggested that she may have an eating disorder and based on what is revealed, she has good reason to want the murder victim dead, as he harassed her for months and worse. I also know that it's important that female characters are allowed to be just as complex and dislikable as male ones, that there is this understanding that girl and women need to be agreeable and pleasant. So I respect Charlotte's right to be prickly, and Cavallaro's right to write her as such. I just think James deserves a better friend. For all that she claims to care for him, and has difficulties showing her emotions, I think she treats him abominably for much of the book and didn't really see why he kept wanting them to be friends.

James/Jamie is a great character. Smart (if nowhere near as brilliant as Charlotte), loyal, steadfast and quite brave, all the things a good Watson should be. He defends Charlotte's honour even before he really knows her, and due to the family legacy, he's always felt as if they belonged together as a team. He just accepts so much poor treatment from her without question and seems to feel guilty every time he asks her for things that it's perfectly ok to expect of friends. That makes me sad, because he really does seem like a pretty great guy, and grows a lot as a person and friend throughout the book.

The mystery in the book is an intricate one, and the villain is really very unpleasant. The lengths they are willing to go to completely ruin Charlotte's life (with Watson as bonus collateral damage) are quite staggering and if this is merely the first book in a planned trilogy, you've got to wonder what the author has planned for the rest of the series, considering these things frequently escalate with each book.

While I didn't really like Charlotte much in this book, she seems to be opening up to the idea of friendship and I liked James and the whole premise of generations of Holmes and Watsons being connected somehow and will probably read the next book in the series as well. I don't think there needs to be anything romantic between the two, though (my favourite thing about Elementary is that there is not even a hint of romantic/sexual tension between Sherlock and Joan), but it seems you can't get YA without a romantic subplot nowadays, so I suppose I shall have to accept it, since the author chose to introduce it.

Judging a book by its cover: While I wish it had a slightly different colour scheme (I think the orangey red and the turquoise is a bit garish), I really do like the cover for this book, with the stylised depictions of the characters, various locations and the continued focus on ivy leaves in all the various scenes. It's certainly a lot better than a lot of YA covers, and the girl with the magnifying glass and the handbag with a snake should clue the reader into the fact that this is a mystery, even if the cheesy tagline about Holmes and Watson hadn't already done it.

 Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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