The Poison Diaries by Maryrose Wood
Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: July 20, 2010
Pages: 304 pages
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Source: Amazon Vine
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry
Sixteen-year-old Jessamine Luxton lost her mother when she was only four and has lived her entire life with her distant, cold father in a "cottage" on the estate of the Duke of Northumberland. Her home is, in fact, an ancient stone chapel that sits next to the ruins of an abbey destroyed presumably during the era of Cromwell when Catholics were hunted down or driven out of England. Her father, Thomas Luxton, works for the Duke as an apothecary. He cares for the Duke's sick family and employees and in his spare time obsessively studies the properties of medicinal herbs, particularly plants that are known to be deadly poison. Thomas keeps an exotic collection of these plants in a walled, padlocked area Jessamine calls his poison garden.
Jessamine begs her father to let her help him with either his healing work or his poison garden, but he insists the former is too gruesome and the latter too dangerous. Instead, he relegates her to being his housekeeper, which involves maintaining three gardens of her own, for vegetables, herbs and dye plants, as well as sewing, cooking, cleaning, and caring for their small collection of farm animals. Her father is often gone for days at a time treating sick people, and when he is home he rarely talks to her, to the point that Jessamine worries that she has forgotten how to speak. Then one day Tobias Pratt, the owner of the local madhouse, shows up and insists Thomas take charge of an odd orphan named Weed who appears to be about Jessamine's age. Pratt claims Weed has cured so many of the mentally ill in his keeping with herbal teas that his asylum is almost empty. He says that while Weed is putting him out of business, he'd be a welcome help to a healer like Thomas. Greedy for Weed's botanical knowledge, Jessamine's father agrees to take him in, and Jessamine is delighted to at last have some companionship. But Weed is almost as withdrawn as her father. For days Weed hides in their cellar, and it is hard for Jessamine to get him to eat or talk to her. But she is determined to win his confidence, in much the same way she has earned the trust of feral cats in the woods near her home. She talks and talks to Weed, gradually growing very attached to him as he opens up to her little by little. And she can't help being drawn to the startling beauty of his unruly, dark hair, pale skin and "emerald green eyes...like twin jewels." Pratt believes Weed is a witch and Jessamine's father thinks he has an enviable genius with herbs. But as Jessamine gets to know Weed more and more deeply, she learns the actual truth is far more shocking than either of those guesses.
Previous to writing this YA historical, fantasy novel, Maryrose Wood's YA novels have been light and humorous with contemporary settings, so the dark tone and historical setting of this novel may surprise her fans. The first 40 pages of the book is almost entirely made up of the musings of the heroine about her lonely life, both as first-person narrative and entries in her journal. Jessamine longs to be of use to other people rather than hidden away from the world at the mercy of her disinterested father, and this is shown as well as told through the author's atmospheric and poetic prose.
The second part of the book explores Jessamine's relationship with Weed. The writing here is lovely, too, but the mood is more hopeful because Jessamine is no longer painfully alone. I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing with Jessamine the conflict between her growing attachment to Weed and her concerns about who he is, what his life has been like up until now, and what exactly his mysterious talent is. I also appreciated the subtle way the author handles the sexual attraction between the two innocent teenagers. In part three of the book, the mood of the story shifts drastically, getting extremely dark as the villains of the story begin to blatantly make life extremely difficult for the young lovers.
This is clearly the first book of what is probably at least a trilogy, and that probably explains why the ending of the book is not at all satisfying. In fact, it is downright depressing. I assume this is because, in the larger picture of the trilogy, this is only Act 1.
According to the information on the Advanced Reading Copy I received from the publisher through Amazon Vine, they are going all out to promote this book and are very likely hoping that Weed and Jessamine might become as beloved to teenage girls as Edward and Bella. If so, it won't be because Weed is anything like Edward in personality or the particular magic that is his gift. The romantic conflict keeping the lovers apart is also very different than in Twilight. In order to avoid creating any spoilers, I will only say this: Weed makes some ethical choices that Jessamine has big problems with, and many readers might as well. In addition, the way that the author sets up the actions of the two villains makes Jessamine far too helpless and passive--to the point that in the latter part of the book Weed takes over as the first-person voice of the novel. And ultimately, Weed, too, is forced into a position of hopeless helplessness by the structure of the plot. But again, this may all be on purpose because the story of Weed and Jessamine is a three-part epic, and this is only part one. In addition, the story contains an intriguing love triangle, which is a very popular feature of YA fantasy romances, and has been even before Twilight.