Review ~ The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

This book was provided to me by Doubleday Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

Cover via Goodreads

In 1872 the American merchant vessel Mary Celeste was discovered adrift off the coast of Spain. Her cargo was intact and there was no sign of struggle, but the crew was gone. They were never found.

This maritime mystery lies at the center of an intricate narrative branching through the highest levels of late-nineteenth-century literary society. While on a voyage to Africa, a rather hard-up and unproven young writer named Arthur Conan Doyle hears of the Mary Celeste and decides to write an outlandish short story about what took place. This story causes quite a sensation back in the United States, particularly between sought-after Philadelphia spiritualist medium Violet Petra and a rational-minded journalist named Phoebe Grant, who is seeking to expose Petra as a fraud. Then there is the family of the Mary Celeste’s captain, a family linked to the sea for generations and marked repeatedly by tragedy. Each member of this ensemble cast holds a critical piece to the puzzle of the Mary Celeste. (via Goodreads)

I read Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly back in 2010. It was an interesting novel, a retelling of Jekyll and Hyde from the point of view of a servant in Dr. Jekyll’s household, a character that would be invisible in Stevenson novel. Ultimately though, the novel didn’t leave me with a very strong impression. A week after finishing it, my opinion of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is similar.

It’s a quiet novel, told through multiple perspectives and techniques: news stories, diaries, and, in the case of the Arthur Conan Doyle character, straight third-person narrative. Indeed, Doyle is the only male point of view and Martin imbues him with fairly off-putting measure of good-old-boy machismo. This isn’t a bad thing. Doyle’s place in this story is as an ignorant myth-maker. He bakes own experiences at sea into his fiction about the mystery of the Mary Celeste, a real tragedy that touches the lives of the other characters in the story. Unfortunately, I never invested enough to care for the majority of the characters. The most interesting, Phoebe Grant, is only a vessel for Violet Petra’s story.

The one very strong aspect of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is Valerie Martin’s attention to historical details. I don’t know enough to say that there were no anachronisms, but the setting never felt false. I never felt the need to stop reading and consult Wikipedia, as I have lately when reading historical fiction. The writing is deft; I’d say Martin has improved since Mary Reilly, but the novel still lacked some plot aspect to wow me.

Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Publication date: January 28th 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction
Why did I choose to read this book? Read Martin’s Mary Reilly; sounded like a good historical fiction.


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5 thoughts on “Review ~ The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

  1. This really is one of those fascinating mysteries, and one around which I imagine a great many novels could be written incorporating reasonable and completely ludicrous ideas about what happened.

    1. I didn’t know too much about the Mary Celeste until reading this book, which is one of the reasons I picked it. This novel only skirts the actual mystery while poking fun as some of the early tall-tales about it.

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