Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, November 29, 2021

Monday, November 29, 2021: YA Maximum Shelf: Anatomy: A Love Story

Wednesday Books: Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

Wednesday Books: Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

Wednesday Books: Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

Wednesday Books: Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

Anatomy: A Love Story

by Dana Schwartz

In Anatomy, Dana Schwartz (Choose Your Own Disaster; The White Man's Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon) pulls back the curtain on the thrilling and fascinating world of 19th-century surgeons and the bodies they dissect, as seen through the eyes of 17-year-old Hazel Sinnett in 1817 Edinburgh, Scotland. Part romance, part gory historical curiosity and part pulsating page-turner, Schwartz's novel is thrumming with life, even as it looks compassionately at what is dead and dying.

Hazel has her heart set on becoming a surgeon. It doesn't matter that no woman can be a physician, let alone a surgeon. It doesn't matter that she's the eldest daughter of a lord and the niece of a viscount, and is expected to marry well. It doesn't even matter that she's been basically betrothed since birth to her dry-as-a-bone cousin, Bernard, who doesn't want such a "morbid" wife. Hazel is determined not only to be a surgeon, but also to find a cure for Roman fever, the deadly disease that killed her older brother and seems to be sweeping Scotland again.

Hazel dresses as a man in order to attend lectures by the famed Dr. Beecham and the less-pleasant Dr. Straine. But when her true identity is revealed, she must prove her worth by passing the medical exam with no professional help. Desperate for experience, Hazel teams up with Jack Currer, a handsome and scrappy resurrection man, to dig up the bodies she needs. Fortunately, bodies aren't hard to find in a contagion-ridden city. But through Jack, Hazel begins to see there's more plaguing the streets than just Roman fever: there are sightings of strange men prowling the cemeteries, mysterious disappearances and unexplained wounds among the working classes. And as Hazel begins practicing on dead and living patients alike, she and Jack discover a secret darker than they could have imagined.

Nineteenth-century Edinburgh provides a hauntingly atmospheric backdrop to Hazel and Jack's gothic-inspired tale. Filled with secret passageways, lantern-lit graveyards and cobwebbed theaters, the novel's setting is not only delightfully textured, with its period-specific macabre aesthetic, but also rich in historical detail. Excerpts from Dr. Beecham's Treatise on Anatomy open most chapters and provide extra detail not only on the fascinating history of surgery during this period, but also on the subtly disturbing cultural, political and social underpinnings that "scientific" beliefs often uphold. Slyly intelligent in its exploration of one young woman's career ambitions and the uncanny divisions between "care" and exploitation in the medical field, Anatomy has more than its fair share of social criticism creased between pages of romance, mystery and thrills.

And, to be sure, Anatomy does pack a punch when it comes to thrills. Midnight grave robberies, the "unpleasant squelching of the blood and viscus between... fingers" and unpracticed medical students "hack[ing] away at the innards" all lead up to an appropriately blood-splattered climax. While fans might say that Anatomy is most akin to the genre-dexterous Schwartz's podcast Noble Blood--which deep-dives into the murderous lives of historical royals--it is still host to her surprising and irreverent humor (on display in her popular Twitter account @GuyInYourMFA). Schwartz's wit bubbles up at unexpected moments and often characterizes the corset-loosened chemistry between Hazel and Jack. For example, after spending a heart-pounding night hiding in a dug-up grave with an eyeless corpse, Jack (poorly) plays the part of the haunting spirit that a local priest mistakes him for: " 'Yes! We be the undead woken! And we'll be'--he tugged on Hazel's arm--'going now. Arghhhh!' "

These moments of lightness pair with more barbed jabs at Hazel's betrothed, Bernard, the novel's incarnation of Schwartz's favorite target: the privileged white man who, though self-assuredly uptight, could be knocked over by a breeze. Bernard begins the novel as the seemingly innocuous butt of Hazel's internal jokes: "He was nice enough, his skin relatively clear. He was, well, dull, but so were the rest of them." As with all truly great humor, the jokes at Bernard's expense become increasingly earned as well as unsettling when the true extent of the societal power given to such a frail man becomes apparent.

Thus, as with all of Schwartz's work, there is more to Anatomy than immediately meets the eye. Like Hazel, readers may begin the book eager to indulge in the strangely pleasurable and fascinating experience of witnessing grotesquerie. Hazel admits that after receiving a missive describing a hanging, she "had read [the letter] so many times she had memorized every line: the way the convict's head had jerked when the rods were lowered to its temples, how its eyelids had scrolled open." But also like Hazel, the reader's awareness of such violence as people being "trotted out for yet another performance, yet another matinee for yet another crowd" begins to transform the way one consumes the novel's gore. The true heart of Anatomy lies in Hazel's compassionate, patient-centered approach to medicine and the knowledge that living bodies are animated not only by organs, but by those for whom they care. --Alice Martin

Wednesday Books, $18.99, hardcover, 352p., ages 13-18, 9781250774156, January 18, 2022

Wednesday Books: Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

Dana Schwartz: The Teenaged Tumblr Page of My Brain

(photo: Sela Shiloni)

Dana Schwartz is the creator and host of the podcast Noble Blood, which explores the fascinating (and gory) tales of history's most infamous royals. She's also the author of a memoir, Choose Your Own Disaster, and a humor book, The White Man's Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon, based on her viral Twitter account @GuyInYourMFA. She lives in Los Angeles with her fiancé and beloved cats. Anatomy, her fourth book, will be published by Wednesday Books on January 18, 2022.

While there are similarities between your podcast Noble Blood and this novel, Anatomy is quite different from your previous writing. What inspired this project?

The idea for Anatomy came long before Noble Blood. I wanted to write a book, ideally a YA book, that captured everything I loved when I was a teenager. And I loved weird, dark things. I liked Coraline and The Martian Chronicles and Penny Dreadful and Crimson Peak. Beautiful, romantic, weird things. The connective tissue of Frankenstein and My Chemical Romance in a non-Hot Topic way. Before I moved to L.A. I had a fellowship at a castle called Hawthornden Castle, which is where most of the book takes place. I spent a month there writing and that's where I had the original idea for Anatomy. Edinburgh is such a cool, romantic, beautiful city. I wanted to be able to capture that. You're walking down these cobblestone streets and the history there is really bloody and a little macabre. There were hangings there and that's where the anatomy schools were happening. There was even this famous case of these two resurrection men who were murdering bodies to sell them to doctors. I wanted to take all that dark, moody, romantic history and wrap it up into a package that I would have wanted to read when I was 16.

Even though a lot of my writing has been spread across a lot of different genres and mediums, I try to keep my interest authentic. Because if it's boring for me to write about, I assume it's boring for someone to read about. I ask myself that with every episode of Noble Blood. Do I actually care about this? And I wanted to communicate that through Anatomy, too. I wanted to write a story that looked like the teenaged Tumblr page of my brain.

In researching Anatomy, what were your go-to stories, texts or materials?

I love research, that feeling of the detective work of finding out information from different sources. It feels like putting together a puzzle. It massages my brain. For Anatomy I started with books. I actually have an Anatomy shelf. On it, I have The Butchering Art, The Royal Art of Poison, Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright, Stiff, The Invention of Murder, Murder by Candlelight, Crucial Interventions. Basically, it's a full shelf of books about murder and the history of medical procedures in the 19th century and doctors in the 19th century. Then I went from there. It really got me in the mood. That and a spooky playlist as I wrote.

In writing the horror elements of Anatomy, how did you strike the balance between indulging in creepy gore without being gratuitous?

I didn't want to condescend to young readers. I didn't want to pull any punches. People have a macabre fascination with things. Sometimes people are drawn to dark, slightly gory things. I wanted to capture that in a way that spoke to how human beings are drawn to gross things, things close to death. It's the same impulse that makes us watch horror. We are scared of death, and we are trying to conquer it. We are trying to skate as close to the edge as we can. Without giving much away, that idea of trying to conquer death is a big theme for the last turn of the book. We are just bodies. Isn't that gross and weird? That's a thing that fascinates me and I thought would be interesting for readers.

While this novel is a page-turner, it's also got a lot of complex social commentary.

The social commentary angle was inspired by a thing that was real at the time, where poor people would sell their teeth to wealthy people. That literal transference interested me. In the 19th century, they thought, incorrectly, that if they pulled a fresh, living tooth and put it into a rich person's mouth that it could reattach. Poor people would get paid to sit in chairs and get a tooth pulled with no anesthesia. That became such an anchor for what I wanted to say with the book because it's visceral and visual and creepy. But also it's such a perfect metaphor for how much labor and how much of themselves people in this country need to give to the wealthy for their own survival.

How did you juggle the many genres in this book while writing it?

I often closed my eyes--literally or metaphorically--and tried to visualize what would be the best version of this story. I don't want to give it away, but the minor sci-fi departure of the book is basically the question of what if that tooth extraction/replacement worked? How would society work if that was a real power that some people had?

The weirdest thing for me is this was a book about a pandemic that I conceived of two years before coronavirus. The Roman fever--the sickness in the book--is fictional but I looped together a bunch of diseases that existed at the time. It was an example of taking something real from the 19th century and fictionalizing to make it a little more coherent for a book, plot-wise. But then a real pandemic happened, and I was like, "oh boy, if I were rewriting this now it would be a little different." I will say one change I made to a draft of the book: I had a doctor character who had a vaccine that turned out to be a con. And I took that out because I didn't want anything in my book to discourage people from the vaccine.

Are there new projects you are working on that you can tell us about?

You might have noticed that the book is a little bit open-ended. So, hypothetically, if someone were to say there's a sequel being written, it would feature a little bit more of the Noble Blood aspect of this book. It would explore more about what court was like at the time. King George IV is going to be the first English monarch to visit Scotland in a generation. So, there's a lot happening in the real world with the relationship between the English royal family and what's happening in Scotland that I might want to explore. Hypothetically, one thing I would also do is get into a little more of the logistics and dynamics of the sci-fi aspect of medicine I tease to at the end of this book. --Alice Martin

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