Published by Lake Union Publishing on September 18, 2018
Genres: historical fiction, paranormal, mystery
Format: eBook, ARC
Two hearts. Twice as vulnerable. Manhattan, 1850. Born out of wedlock to a wealthy socialite and a nameless immigrant, Cora Lee can mingle with the rich just as easily as she can slip unnoticed into the slums and graveyards of the city. As the only female resurrectionist in New York, she’s carved out a niche procuring bodies afflicted with the strangest of anomalies. Anatomists will pay exorbitant sums for such specimens—dissecting and displaying them for the eager public. Cora’s specialty is not only profitable, it’s a means to keep a finger on the pulse of those searching for her. She’s the girl born with two hearts—a legend among grave robbers and anatomists—sought after as an endangered prize. Now, as a series of murders unfolds closer and closer to Cora, she can no longer trust those she holds dear, including the young medical student she’s fallen for. Because someone has no intention of waiting for Cora to die a natural death.
“I’m not ashamed of who I am, Leah. It’s everyone else that has trouble with it.”
The Impossible Girl takes an interesting, almost fantastical premise – does Cora Lee, the protagonist, really have two hearts? – and then firmly grounds it in rich historical detail. Especially vivid are the depictions of resurrectionists (people who obtained corpses to serve as public medical dissection cadavers or even as freakshow museum anomalies) and their work in mid-nineteenth-century Manhattan. It’s a novel that asks a lot of questions about medical research, respect for the dead, “race science,” past and present misogyny, and being biracial in an America that thinks of nonwhite people as inferior.
“Some good can come of an unwanted, bastard child. When the child dies, give the body to me, as it will be no use to you. It might fetch as high as fifty dollars.”
Cora is a resurrectionist. Possibly one of the best. Born with what feels and sounds like two hearts, Cora is raised in isolation and disguised as a boy (I’ll get into that in a bit) to protect her from anatomists, or doctors that would love to dissect her. She’s given an education throughout her childhood and harbors a deep-seated dream of becoming a doctor. Several things work against this dream – her gender, her race (her father is an unknown Chinese man), and her lack of money. Disguised as Jacob Lee, she works as the leader of a grave-robbing crew to earn much-needed cash.
It’s through Cora’s work that she meets Flint, who she views as potential competition. Their meeting, and the strange murders of people with medical anomalies like her own, set off a rivalry between them and a tense investigation into what’s going wrong among Manhattan’s resurrectionists. As Cora races against money problems, physical danger, and the inquiring attention of Flint, she must decide who she can trust and what path to take.
The 1850s Manhattan setting is meticulously realized. I could tell the author went to great lengths to research this book’s subject and location. (That said, I’ve never even been to New York City, let alone to Manhattan, and I’m not a time-traveler or historian.) The gritty alleys and gaudy parlors were vividly described but not overdone. Even though I had some issues with the novel (which I’ll get into a bit later), I applaud the author’s work on The Impossible Girl’s setting.
“Twenty cents only?” Cora wondered fleetingly, Would I be worth so much? But she forced the idea away. As usual, she blurred her thoughts over words like monstrosity and malformation, as if they had nothing to do with her.
Cora made for an engaging protagonist. Practical, a little proud, and endlessly inquisitive, she is diverted from her childhood interest in becoming a doctor by her protective guardians and the societal view that women were not fit to work in medicine. To readers who would rather their historical fiction protagonists never express viewpoints that would have been progressive in their time, I imagine she will seem like an anachronistic heroine. The novel counters that view a bit by including a fictional version of an actual female doctor who lived and worked at the time, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.
I’m not usually a fan of characters disguising themselves in the clothes of other genders in novels, at least when it’s done poorly. As a nonbinary person, I often wish that characters used the opportunity of attire to explore how they feel about their identity or gender. In this novel, it was…okay. Not bad. I kind of didn’t love how, when her “true” self is revealed to people who formerly only knew her as Jacob Lee, they just say that they knew based on her size and appearance. Still, it didn’t rankle me too much, and I suppose this story’s main focus was more on the mystery/whodunnit aspects rather than an introspective exploration of gender.
Flint was an entertaining character, though I never got a strong feel for him. He felt almost like a rough sketch to me, rather than a fully-finished drawing. That might be due to the strength and presence of Cora’s character in comparison to his, however.
I gotta say, I was actually pretty surprised at one of the late-stage plot twists with a particular character. It was just how I like my twists: with enough hinting to get a strange feeling about things, but not enough hinting to equate to a neon sign over someone’s head shouting LOOK AT ME, I’M BAD NEWS. Then, there are several other twists I won’t name, but that were almost depressing to read. Just…wow. Cora faced a lot of shit in this novel.
One of my favorite relationships in this novel – and one that I liked far more than the romance – was Cora’s developing relationship with her cousin, Suzette. It was so sweet and good to see Cora develop a relationship with another woman, with them supporting each others’ aspirations and having each others’ backs, despite their very different backgrounds.
If you’re going to cry, go to church and pray for the living. The dead don’t need your tears.
As I mentioned in the section about characters, this novel’s plot was definitely twisty. (Admittedly, I don’t read a ton of novels in the mystery genre so your mileage may vary with my assessment.) It was definitely dark, though – dark in the sense that Cora really did face some terrible betrayals and intense feelings of emotional isolation. Near the end, there’s also some threats of mortal physical danger, but none of it reached a level I would describe as gratuitous or voyeuristic. I felt that Kang used dramatic tension and danger to good effect in this novel, even if some sections of the novel felt terribly grim to me.
Be warned, though: this novel does feature a great deal of death and corpses. Cora works as a resurrectionist, after all. If you don’t enjoy reading descriptions of dead bodies, murder, or general violence, you might want to steer clear of this.
Things I didn’t enjoy as much
I actually really liked this novel, despite what I see as its flaws, so this section is going to be fairly small.
- The latter half of the novel felt a bit disjointed, and certain sections of the plot did feel a slow-moving. It didn’t prevent me from reading it, but I did take longer to read this book than I usually would for one of its length.
- I didn’t love a certain element in the romance. I won’t mention it here, because it’s a major spoiler, but I’ll probably include it contained in spoiler tags for my goodreads review.
- The ghost chapters. I think the novel would have been stronger without them, and I didn’t really like them.
And that’s it! Like I said, this novel ultimately won me over and made for a good mystery read on the whole.
Recommended or not?
Yeah, I rec it! I would say to take note of the fact that this is not a young adult novel, but it looks like it isn’t being mistakenly marketed as one. But ultimately: give this one a shot if you enjoy period mysteries, medical drama, spooky and moody settings, or a strong heroine. All of those elements plus more are present in this novel, and I think it will make a nice, atmospheric fall mystery for many readers.
Thanks to Lake Union Publishing and NetGalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof and may be subject to change in the final published copy.