YA Weekend: Girl at the Grave by Teri Bailey Black
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Young Adult
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor Teen (August 7, 2018)
Length: 336 pages
It is the mid-1800s in the small New England town of Feavers Crossing, and Valentine Deluca is a teenager who has grown up with the stigma of being a murderer’s daughter. It didn’t matter that Valentine was only six years old when her mother was hanged for the killing of Nigel Blackshaw, a local man from a wealthy and prominent family; towns like Feavers Crossing don’t forgive and forget easily, and people in power have a way of holding a grudge. Still, thanks to the financial support provided by a mysterious benefactor, Valentine is able to attend the most prestigious school in the area, even if her presence there is met with scorn and severe backlash. Valentine finds it hard to mix with her fellow students, who whisper vicious things behind her back. Even more awkward is that Rowan Blackshaw, the son of the man her mother killed, is also enrolled at the school.
Shockingly though, instead of blaming her for her mother’s crimes, Rowan sees in Valentine a kindred spirit. As graduation approaches, their friendship deepens into something more, much to the dismay of Rowan’s grandmother, the indomitable Mrs. Blackshaw, as well as Sam Frye, Valentine’s best friend who has loved her since they were both children. But then one day, new information comes to light on the murder of Nigel Blackshaw, turning Valentine’s world upside down. With equal parts terror and excitement, our protagonist realizes that what she has discovered may help clear her mother’s name, but fears that it might also mean the end of her relationship with Rowan, because surely the truth would break his heart.
I won’t lie; this book started off with a lot of promise, but sadly I felt that most of it was negated by the contrived storytelling and some really poor decisions on the main character’s part. Let’s start off with the elephant in the room: the dreaded love triangle. I know this is a contentious topic for a lot of readers. Some love them, others can’t stand them. Personally, I’ve had my issues with love triangles in the past, but for the most part, I can deal with (and even enjoy) them as long as 1) they are well written, and 2) they don’t get in the way of the main story.
Bearing these two points in mind, when it comes to Girl at the Grave, I truly cannot think of a book that needed a love triangle less. And it’s a shame, because it single-handedly sabotaged what I believe could have been a great YA mystery suspense. What I wanted was more examples of Valentine being strong, clever, and steadfast as she sought for answers and worked tirelessly towards getting to the bottom of her mother’s history. What I got instead was her bouncing between Rowan and Sam like some deranged ping-pong ball. Her character ended up embodying everything I despise about indecisive female leads, especially those who can only think about boys and kissing while other lives are at stake. In all fairness though, our lovesick Valentine did manage to pull herself together by the third act, but by then an undue amount of time had already been wasted dwelling on the love triangle theatrics.
To the novel’s credit, when you take away all the unnecessary romantic drama, the author does write a compelling mystery plot. The twists are slightly ill-timed and inelegant, but they work well in spite of that. A couple of the major reveals genuinely surprised me, which incidentally made me all the more eager to get past the love triangle and right back into the main story. The writing was also solid, though some word choices, descriptions, and dialogue probably could have been polished up or reworked to better reflect the setting in a historical context. The gothic-style atmosphere didn’t always come through, and sometimes the mid-nineteenth century setting felt only like a thin cloth draped over a modern teen novel.
In sum, Girl at the Grave held some true potential, and really, for a debut, it’s not bad. However, too many missteps and plot banalities like an annoying love triangle ultimately made this one a disappointment.